Since Mei Ling and I got married six years ago, we've experienced a cultural double life. We live in Miami, a city not known for Asian culture, but we frequently interact with the small Chinese community here. Mei Ling cooks incredible dinners that fuse the best of Asian and Occidental ingredients. Our kids are mixed of course, so it's important for us to keep them in touch with their Chinese heritage. Part of that means taking them to see the maternal half of their family in China every couple of years. The way it's worked out, every time we've gone back we've had a new kid to show off which adds a special quality to the reunion. We've also made a tradition out of expanding our China visits into around-the-world trips with multiple destinations, partially to mitigate the pain of flying halfway around the world in one day. The itinerary from Miami to Mudanjiang is particularly brutal, requiring three flights with long layovers and more than 26 hours of transit. In the past we've broken up our trip in such places as London, San Francisco, and Seoul. This time round we settled on New York City as our first stop, which is a great departure point for the Far East due to the polar shortcut. Mei Ling was also set on visiting Taipei to see her elderly great uncle. I've become addicted to European road trips so after much thought I chose a Scandinavian itinerary that would take about three weeks to complete. That meant we had to extend the trip to six weeks, our longest continuous trip ever. We decided to leave the day after the older kids finished school and return the day before Spenser turned two, in order to maximize the lap child discount.
New York City is both Mei Ling's and my favorite city in the world. I grew up in Brooklyn but left when I was 17, so I never got to experience the city as an adult native. However, my parents lived there until I was 40 and I have several friends there, so I was able to stay acquainted with New York through frequent visits. What I've always loved more than anything about Manhattan is how one can just walk around in the downtown neighborhoods and be assured of seeing unusual people, unique stores and galleries, and amazing performances. In the years since I left New York, the eastern boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have flowered and become home to diverse communities of Asian and Latin American immigrants who maintain a close connection to their native lands. Those exotic influences have fused with urban renewal in formerly blighted and colorless neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick to create new hubs of cultural activity that are completely independent of Manhattan culture. New York City was a great place to grow up, but I feel that in the last twenty years it's only gotten better.
This was our fourth trip to New York City as a family. In the past we've stayed in the Upper East Side, Chinatown, and Williamsburg. This time we knew we were going to focus on the Queens culinary scene but still wanted to visit Manhattan and Brooklyn. The obvious choice was Long Island City, an up and coming neighborhood just north of Brooklyn and across the river from midtown Manhattan. We could get our funky hipster fix right where we were staying and have easy access to Queens all the way to Flushing via the Long Island Expressway and Roosevelt Ave. Pickings on Airbnb were very slim a month in advance, but I took a chance on a place with some mixed reviews that was about half the price of the cheapest acceptable hotel.
Another advantage of staying in the outer boroughs is that a rental car becomes feasible. New York's public transportation is very outdated with respect to the modern nerve centers of the city and is rather user unfriendly for strollers. Taxis are insanely expensive and Ubers can be hard to find. Therefore, the first place we found ourselves after getting off the plane was at the rental car agency picking up a spacious SUV with plenty of room on the back bench for three child seats. We drove straight to Flushing whose population is at least 50% Asian. The largest community of Asians in Flushing is Chinese, and Flushing's Chinatown has surpassed the original Manhattan Chinatown both in size and in its resemblance to a modern Chinese city.
One of the best places to sample authentic Chinese food in Flushing is at the enormous food court at New World Mall. Besides cuisines from various regions of China, there are also stalls providing selections from Korea, Japan, and Thailand. It would probably take a month of continuous eating to get through all the delicious options. We were already exhausted from the flight and the car pickup, so we made some quick selections of spicy seafood and Xi'an noodles. Mei Ling fed the kids while I made a video of the exuberant cornucopia of Asian cuisine all around us.
We made a quick stop for necessities at the Chinese supermarket upstairs and then drove to Long Island City where we located the entry to our Airbnb after some difficulty. The place turned out to be perfect for us as it was clearly appointed for short-term rental and not someone's residence with artwork and bric-a-brac for the kids to break. The only slight disadvantage was a long, steep staircase up to the second floor apartment. However, all the kids seemed to enjoy the challenge of negotiating the steps.
We woke up to a beautiful Thursday morning, perfect for a walk through the neighborhood to breakfast at LIC Market. Unfortunately LIC Market is not an actual market, but it still provided us with a decent and satisfying breakfast.
After breakfast we continued exploring Long Island City on foot. It's an entertaining area that still shows many of the trappings of its colorless past of warehouses and office blocks, yet also has a large number of new-appearing ethnic restaurants and boutiques. It gives a sense of what Williamsburg must have been like about ten years ago before it exploded into the hipster paradise it is today.
We found our way back to the car and took a short drive up to Euro Market in Astoria, where we marveled at the enormous selections of Eastern European beers, preserves, and cheeses.
It was still early enough to spend a few hours at the Brooklyn Children's Museum so we decided to fill the rest of our afternoon there. This is the oldest children's museum in the United States, and I'm fairly sure I never went there as a child. That's probably because my Mom considered the area to be too seedy to venture into, but like many other parts of Brooklyn Crown Heights has experienced a lot of gentrification in recent years. The neighborhood was full of the beautiful bowfront Victorian houses that are typical of Brooklyn.
The museum turned out to be a lot of fun for the kids and a good way to spend an afternoon. I found it much better than the Children's Museum we have in Miami, but not as good as the one in Houston. We headed back to Long Island City for a solid dinner at the Brazilian restaurant Beija Flor, which thankfully was half empty at that early hour.
After dinner we still felt a lot of NYC energy so we drove east on legendary Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. As the avenue courses eastward underneath the elevated track of the 7 train, it passes through diverse ethnic neighborhoods each of which boasts its own cluster of ethnic restaurants and street food kiosks. Our first stop was Little Bangladesh, in Jackson Heights, to taste jhal muri from Baul Daada's tiny kiosk. The puffed rice snack came out so spicy that I could barely force down a couple of mouthfuls. We saved the rest for later.
We strolled around the neighborhood for a little while visiting South Asian markets and absorbing the atmosphere. Eventually we got back on Roosevelt Ave and drove all the way to the enormous Asian supermarket Sky Foods in Flushing. Despite the size, we didn't come across anything we couldn't have found at our favorite Asian supermarket back home. The turtles did look very tasty though.
We were tempted to stop in the Central and South American section of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights for another dose of street food but in the end fatigue overcame us and we finally surrendered to exhaustion.
We had a smooth, uneventful drive up the southern coast of Sicily to Agrigento. This was a well-maintained, flat stretch of highway with little traffic and pleasant views of rolling hillsides, farmland, and occasionally the coastline.
By the time we arrived in Agrigento everyone was recovered from seasickness and looking forward to lunch. Mei Ling had picked a well-reviewed restaurant in the center of town from TripAdvisor. Unfortunately, either I took a wrong turn or our GPS misguided us and we found ourselves in a tangle of narrow streets, steep inclines, and dead ends. I bravely attempted to navigate through it but eventually we came to a spot where it seemed unlikely that our car would pass through undamaged. Mei Ling got out and helped me reverse the car through a very unpleasant sequence of sharp turns on an upward slope until we reached the main street again. It seems that we'll never manage to get through a European road trip without at least one experience like that, although I think we're getting better at avoiding them. I think if we'd had a minivan we never would have made it back out with both tail lights.
The old town rewarded us for our persistence with several pretty churches and squares on the main street Via Athenea.
Our chosen restaurant was closed on Mondays as were most of the others we passed, but eventually we found a very pleasant place with an outdoor terrace and decent food.
From Agrigento it was a short drive to the Valley of the Temples, probably the most famous archaeologic site in Sicily. Close to the site we stopped at a cafe on the side of the road for ice cream and views of the Temple of Hercules and the town.
We spent a lot of energy getting Cleo excited about the temples so that she wouldn't complain about the walk, but in typical fashion she fell asleep soon after we arrived. Ian ended up being the one who got to pose with the statue of fallen Icarus in front of the Temple of Concordia. It was a pleasant walk but once again I was reminded how much I preferred exploring the old quarters of modern cities to bumping shoulders with other tourists at ancient sites.
We would have liked to stop at Scala dei Turchi but it was already getting late and we wanted to get an early dinner. This was the only night for which I hadn't booked accommodation in advance, since I wasn't sure where we would end up on our long drive along the southern coast. After Agrigento, Sciacca was the obvious choice and fortunately my gamble on a last minute booking paid off. Casale La Zagara was a little hard to find, even with GPS, but they provided us with a very comfortable apartment in attractive surroundings. We had a surprisingly difficult time locating a restaurant that wasn't booked solid on a Monday evening, but eventually found a small place in the old town that provided a typically mediocre Sicilian restaurant meal.
The next morning we explored downtown Sciacca. There was only one major street, unsurprisingly named Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The avenue was pleasantly atmospheric and devoid of tourists.
We stopped at one of the lunch kiosks in Piazza Saverio Friscia for what would turn out to be our last spleen sandwiches of the trip.
At the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele was a small park called Villa Communale with views of the shoreline and the modern part of the town to the west. It was a good spot for the kids to stretch their legs and enjoy the Mediterranean breeze.
Our first stop out of Sciacca was Il Castello Incantato, a strange estate left behind by the sculptor Filippo Bentivegna. Bentivegna was an eccentric character who spent the later part of his life sculpting heads and faces out of stones he extracted from rock walls. After his death in 1967, the estate was restored and the stone heads were strategically placed along pathways and terraces. The site is full of trees and prickly pear cactus as well as a small and spooky network of limestone caves. We found a loquat tree that was laden with delicious ripe fruit and spent nearly as much time eating loquats as we did on the rest of the estate.
After Sciacca the highway turned inland so there wasn't much scenery on the way to the town I had picked out for lunch, Mazara del Vallo. This ancient fishing town is famous for its lasting Arabic character. The Kasbah quarter of town is home to thousands of Sicilians of North African descent as well as more recent immigrants. The old town was much more impressive than I had expected, with atmospheric narrow streets and beautiful churches.
The Tunisian restaurant in Kasbah I had selected turned out to be closed on Tuesdays, so we had to scramble to find another place to eat. We ended up at a higher end restaurant where we were fortunately the only customers. It ended up being the most expensive meal of the trip, thanks to the seafood platter and the exorbitantly-priced scarlet shrimp.
Our last major destination of the trip was also one of our most highly anticipated. The mountaintop walled town of Erice is on every must-see list for Sicily. Instead of driving the winding road up the mountain, I elected to take the cable car from Trapani. I had been warned about the scam artists at the parking lot who falsely claim the lot is closed and demand payment for parking elsewhere, so I wasn't surprised to see some sketchy characters sitting on the curb outside the entrance. I didn't even make eye contact as they jumped up and started shouting at me as I drove into the lot. The cable car turned out to be the right choice, as everyone loved the views over Trapani and the Mediterranean as the gondola rose into the clouds.
Once we got off the cable car in Erice, we walked straight to Castello di Venere via Viale Conte Pepoli just outside the city wall. We had amazing views of the green countryside below us through the clouds, as well as the castle up ahead.
Every castle and mountaintop village we had seen in Sicily so far had its own unique character, from the noble ruins atop La Rocca di Cefalu to lively, modern Castelmola. Nothing that we had seen compared to the incredible views from Castello di Venere. To the east we could see the town of Valderice as though we were looking out the window of an airplane. Further to the northeast was the hulking mass of Monte Cofano at the shoreline. Just to the north we could see two other beautiful castles, the Torri del Balio and below it the relatively modern Torretta Pepoli.
We stopped at a viewpoint close by the Castello di Venere for a look back at the majestic ruins perched on the tree-covered precipice.
Having sated ourselves on clifftop castles and amazing views, we plunged into the triangular maze of cobblestone streets within the walled city. It was clearly a touristy place, but once again the time of year and our late day arrival worked in our favor. We had the streets and squares largely to ourselves.
We stopped at Caffe San Giuliano for snacks and mulled wine, and were treated very kindly by the proprietors. Cleo and Ian were shocked when the owner bounced what appeared to be a brown egg, but was actually a rubber ball, on the floor in front of them.
By the time we reached the 15th century Chiesa Matrice near the cable car station, the sun was starting to go down and an ominous fog was rolling in. Cleo looked like a little bug next to the imposing Norman edifice.
Erice was a fitting conclusion to our amazing two week tour of Sicily and Malta. There was only one important task left, which was to find a memorable final dinner. Fortunately, the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in all of Trapani Province was on the way to our Airbnb near the Palermo Airport. I Sapori Siciliana turned out to be a grill combined with a butcher shop and a beautiful delicatessen. The meat was quite good, although I was skeptical that a better restaurant couldn't be found in all of Trapani. Of course, TripAdvisor is a very flawed method of choosing the best restaurant given the way it incorporates people's biases towards inexpensive comfort food. Nevertheless, when traveling quickly through an unfamiliar area it's really the best tool available.
We spent the usual restless final night in a very basic Airbnb in Terrasini, and dropped the car off at the airport early in the morning. Alitalia did their very best to ruin our trip back to Miami. Their agents were so slow to check people in that the flight to Palermo took off forty minutes late, and once on the tarmac in Rome they couldn't seem to figure out how to get the passengers from the tarmac to the terminal. All of this incompetence was naturally accompanied by the casual rudeness we learned to expect from Alitalia employees from our arrival experience. Eventually we made our connection by a hair and settled in for the ten hour flight back to Miami.
The Sicily adventure was one of our most enjoyable European road trips to date. In retrospect there probably isn't much I would have changed. A few extra days would have been nice of course, but we maxed out the time I felt comfortable taking off work and taking Cleo out of school. Sicily is a difficult task for a short trip because the top sights are scattered around the island. No trip to Sicily would be complete without stops in Erice, Palermo, Taormina, Siracusa, the Baroque cities, and the southern coast. I loved inland Sicily and Catania as well, although these rarely make the lists of top tourist attractions. One problem we have on these trips is the restaurants. No matter what we try, we can't seem to find those epic meals that we expect in countries like Italy, France, and Spain. With the kids we can't go for the Michelin stars, but it still surprises me how seemingly well-regarded casual restaurants fall short of our expectations. Our standards aren't unrealistic - there are several very authentic Italian restaurants in Miami that I find preferable to virtually anything we've found in Italy itself. Don't even get me started on the amazing Italian restaurants in Boston and New York City. So how does one find these places in Italy? I guess we'll just have to keep going until we figure it out.
Malta was one of those countries that used to be on my travel bubble. If I ever made it there, fine. If I didn't, I wasn't going to lose any sleep about it. However, it always seemed like an interesting place and the idea for the Sicily road trip originally started as a laid-back week just in Malta. It wasn't until I started looking into a brief detour to Sicily that the trip morphed into what it ultimately became.
Given its central Mediterranean location, it was inevitable that Malta was colonized and conquered by virtually every major civilization that dominated the region over the millennia. Malta's last controlling force was the British Empire, which set the stage for the island's sovereignty when the Empire crumbled in the 20th century. Maltese culture, language, and architecture are a strange hybrid of Latinate, Arabic, and Northern European elements.
Arriving into Malta's Grand Harbor is a breathtaking experience. The ferry passes between two massive medieval forts at the mouth and then traverses the entire length of the harbor with Valletta's elevated old town on the right and the peninsular Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua on the left. The view probably hasn't changed much in the last five hundred years, so one can imagine the awe that a Renaissance era sailor must have felt entering this formidable island stronghold.
We had decided not to bring our car, mainly because I didn't feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road. I know many people switch sides without any concern, but I have a tendency to let my thoughts wander while driving and I couldn't shake the fear of driving head on into another car while absentmindedly reverting to the right side of the road. I was curious to see how we could handle transportation with the three kids using just buses and taxis. When we got off the ferry in Valletta, I was surprised to see the disembarking passengers quickly melt away leaving our family alone at the terminal exit. There were no taxis in sight, and my Italian SIM wasn't functional in Malta. Fortunately there was one last passenger awaiting a ride, and the driver of the car who came to pick her up called us a taxi. Despite an extremely short ride to our Airbnb, our fare was quite high. That was when I realized we probably wouldn't have the option of using taxis to get between different destinations on the island.
The Airbnb was a gorgeous modernized three level apartment in an ancient building in the Floriani neighborhood, at the edge of the old town. Our very kind and friendly hostess settled us in, and we immediately packed up the kids for a walk into the old town. From the elevated promenade we could see the Three Cities across the harbor and the elevator that brought people up from the Valletta waterfront.
In the old town we encountered two large Easter processions close to St. John's Co-Cathedral. The parades were anchored by enormous religious floats that men carried on their shoulders. Watching them strain and sweat under the wooden beams was enough to make my own shoulders hurt.
We didn't have any luck at the two neighboring bistros I had targeted in the old town. One was closed and the other was booked solid. We tried a couple of others close by that were also booked and decided we would have to downscale our ambitions a little. Close to the center of the old town we found a busy corner with several pub-style restaurants with outdoor tables, and I chose the most promising after reviewing its menu. There weren't any free tables outside so we sat at the only table inside. The waitress brought over the menus, which didn't look familiar at all. I'd accidentally walked inside the wrong restaurant. I ran across the alley to the first place but they didn't have any tables open, so rather than uproot everyone I decided to bite the bullet and order. Surprisingly, dinner turned out to be our second best restaurant meal of the trip after Al Saraceno in Taormina. Sometimes the best meals are the result of careful planning, and sometimes they're the result of dumb luck.
The next day we broke out our bus map and took a short walk to the Floriani C stop on Triq Sant' Anna, the main drag of the Valletta peninsula. We had an uncomfortably long wait for our bus, to the extent that we started to wonder if it would actually come at all. Eventually one showed up as I was researching where the other bus lines would take us. It took about half an hour to reach Ta' Qali park, where there was a Saturday farmers market we wanted to check out. I was monitoring our progress on Google Maps, and at one point it seemed that the driver was going to bypass Ta' Qali completely and proceed to Mdina. The driver suddenly seemed to realize the same thing because he abruptly pulled the bus over and turned and looked back at me. He seemed to be giving me some instructions using a combination of Maltese and hand gestures, but the only interpretation I could come up with was that he wanted me to help him back up the bus which seemed improbable. After a minute of this, an older man went to the doors which the driver then opened, and he actually went behind the bus and directed him back onto a side street so he could make a U-turn back to Ta' Qali. That was my first time both for being on a bus whose driver forgot the route and for being on a bus that made a U-turn.
The market wasn't anything close to what we had seen in Catania and Palermo, but we were able to put together a meal of chicken and rigatoni from the one cooked food vendor that was there.
I had no idea where the closest bus stop was but we could see the medieval town of Mdina in the distance so I figured we could walk there if we had to. There was also something called Ta' Qali Crafts Village on the way, which I figured would be an interesting place to break from walking and see some local artisans. The walk ended up feeling much longer than we'd expected, perhaps because it was by far the warmest day we'd experienced so far on the trip.
The crafts village didn't turn out to be that exciting as it consisted mainly of showrooms, and we didn't stick around for long. We felt way too overheated to keep walking to Mdina, and one of the gallery owners directed us to a bus stop. Once again we had a ferocious wait for a bus, which appeared to be coming on an hourly schedule. Eventually we got picked up and taken to Mdina, which was very pretty and well-preserved but also extremely touristy. The absence of any sign of native life inside the walls was reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. We did enjoy the view northeast from the highest section of the walls as the kids slurped ice cream from one of the innumerable gelaterias in the medieval city.
On leaving Mdina, we saw one of the Hop-On Hop-Off doubledecker tourist buses outside and decided that might be a better way to see the rest of the island than the infrequent regular buses. It was quite expensive, and the driver had a hard time believing I wanted to buy the tickets so late in the day. Nevertheless, I had no regrets as we pulled away from Mdina and we had excellent views of the walled city from the upper deck of the bus. Another highlight of our drive-by tour was Santa Marija Assunta church in Mgarr.
We decided to hop off the bus in Bugibba, which seemed like an energetic spot towards the northern end of the island. However, we soon realized that virtually all of the activity on the street consisted of lobster-red teenaged tourists from England pre-drinking for the evening's mating rituals. I split a beer with Ian (well, maybe he had a tenth of it) and we sought an exit strategy. We'd missed the last tourist bus so I used the wifi at McDonald's to chart a public bus route with Google Maps. This time the bus came mercifully quickly and we found ourselves back at the main bus station just outside Valletta old town.
We had better luck getting into one of our chosen restaurants this time round, probably because we hit the restaurant row on Old Bakery Street just as they were beginning to open. Top choice Rubino turned us away but after some internal debate Capistrano gave us a table. They asked us if we could be out by 8:30 which was two hours away, and I told them we'd be thrilled to get out much quicker than that if they could make it happen.
Soon after we ordered, a couple of women with Scandinavian accents came in with a little girl who was about six. They didn't have a reservation either, and the maître d' really didn't want to seat them. While they argued, the little girl came over and started watching Cleo's iPad over her shoulder. Eventually the staff relented and the Scandinavian women were guided to a staircase leading to another dining room downstairs. The little girl didn't want to go, so we told the women she was welcome to stay with us until their food came. She watched cartoons on the iPad with Cleo until our food arrived, and then watched on her own while Cleo was eating. Ironically, the food wasn't as good as our randomly chosen pub grub from the night before. We got through the entire dinner and were given our check without any reappearance from the Scandinavian women from the downstairs dining room. Eventually Mei Ling had to bring the little girl back to her family. I can't imagine leaving Cleo out of our sight for close to forty minutes with strangers. Perhaps that's an individual thing, or maybe it's cultural. I guess we'll have an opportunity to find out when we spend three weeks in Scandinavia this summer.
Sunday morning we walked down to the waterfront to catch the double decker tourist bus to the weekly Marsaxlokk fish market. I led us to the official Valletta waterfront area but we couldn't find the bus stop. All the businesses were closed and there was no one around to ask. Eventually we figured out that the stop was a good distance eastward and not in the commercial waterfront area at all. Once we got close to the stop we saw a bus there with a lot of people standing next to it and ran full tilt so as not to miss it. Just as we arrived a second bus pulled up with some people already on it and everyone immediately pushed their way onto the new bus. We didn't even come close to getting on before the bus filled up. It seemed the first bus was having some kind of mechanical problem. Neither bus moved for a few minutes and then they told all the newcomers to get off the second bus. Foreseeing what was about to happen, we jumped onto the first bus as soon as the door opened and I took the older kids to the upper deck. Whatever problem the bus had was now solved, and soon we departed. Amidst all the confusion no one asked us to buy tickets, but I didn't feel badly because the previous day we had paid an entire day's fare for just one leg of the route.
My research had prepared me for the Marsaxlokk market to be touristy, but it was still a disappointment. There was very little in the way of seafood to be seen, and very large amounts of tourist schlock. However, the waterside area was still very pretty with the old buildings lining the promenade and the brightly-colored boats anchored in the harbor.
After a seafood lunch at one of the harborside restaurants, we walked back to the promenade and allowed ourselves to be convinced to take a boat tour to St. Peter's Pool despite gathering storm clouds. The motorboat was just large enough for ourselves and one other family. It was a pleasant ride out of the harbor although it started getting very windy as we rounded Delimara Point.
There was a decent number of people enjoying themselves at the natural semicircular pool, and our driver idled the boat so we could watch a couple of them take the plunge off the fifteen foot overhang.
On the way back it started raining fairly briskly and the waves kicked up as well, so it was quite a cold and uncomfortable return that seemed much longer than the outward leg. Fortunately the real downpour didn't start until we were back on land so we were able to make it into a cafe without getting completely soaked, and we waited out the rain over hot chocolate.
The area of Malta we were most curious about and hadn't yet visited was Vittoriosa, the central of the Three Cities. Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, is an impressively fortified peninsula with its own extensive history as an independent city. The public bus dropped us off in the main square and we made our way down to the yacht marina on the western shore. At the tip of the peninsula is the Fort Saint Angelo which is only connected to the rest of Vittoriosa by a narrow bridge that crosses another tiny marina. Inside here was a restaurant that one could park one's boat immediately outside and a noble-appearing archway connecting the fort to the mainland.
Just inland from the marina is the beautiful St. Lawrence's Church with its distinctive red domes.
We spent an hour or so exploring the nearly-deserted interior of the small city. We found this much more to our liking than Mdina, despite the absence of gelaterias on every street corner. The narrow streets were lined with weathered, ancient buildings that showed interesting signs of their modern inhabitants.
We had to time dinner carefully to catch the hourly bus back to the Valletta main station, and eventually settled on another pub called Cafe Du Brazil in the central square near the bus stop. Despite its somewhat gritty appearance, they provided a very satisfying dinner which included a delicious braised rabbit. We finished our last meal in Malta somewhat mystified as to how these very downscale-appearing pubs acquitted themselves so well in the kitchen. We never did discover what the connection was with Brazil, as there wasn't anything remotely Brazilian on the menu.
We took a slightly different route back to the Airbnb from the bus station and encountered the magnificently illuminated Church of St. Publius.
Our ferry departure was at 6:30 in the morning, so we had arranged in advance to be picked up at 5:00 by the same driver who had brought us there from the port. Unfortunately, 5:15 came and went with no sign of the driver and I didn't have any way to call in him. I sent an e-mail, which naturally went unanswered, so we threw the kids in the strollers and I put Spenser on my back and we began the long walk to the ferry terminal. Fortunately we'd left our large bag in the car in Pozzallo, but it was still a painful effort to schlep the strollers, backpacks, and suitcase almost a mile to the terminal. We'd given ourselves plenty of time, so we weren't in any real danger of missing the ferry, but by the time we got ourselves up to the deck we were exhausted.
I was looking forward to a relaxing ride back to Pozzallo with groggy kids, but as soon as the ferry left its mooring it was clear that wasn't going to happen. The enormous boat immediately began to pitch from side to side to a degree I'd never experienced on a ferry. I looked outside and saw huge swells and troughs everywhere. Within five minutes the first people started to reach for their motion sickness bags. I kept a watchful eye on Spenser in his stroller. He seemed nonchalant at first, but then started crying and almost immediately threw up his breakfast. I cleaned him up and then Mei Ling took him in her arms and he fell asleep. Within half an hour it seemed like half the passengers were heaving into their bags. Mei Ling was sick as well by this point. I hoped the older kids would be OK, since they'd never had any motion sickness problems, but even Ian finally lost it after about an hour. Only Cleo and I got through the ride unscathed. I guess she'll be the one joining me on fishing trips when she gets a little older.
We ended our visit to Malta with mixed feelings. It's certainly a unique place, thanks to its long history and mix of influences, but it falls short of many other parts of Europe when it comes to atmosphere. Except for Vittoriosa, much of what we saw had a plasticky, artificial veneer that seemed geared towards package tourists. Of course, we never made it to the smaller island of Gozo that contains many of Malta's most famous natural attractions. It's also likely that the main island keeps many secrets that we simply didn't have enough time or mobility to discover. However, given the amount of Europe and the rest of the world that we still have to explore, I don't foresee us returning.
We retrieved our car and loaded up our still-queasy crew. It was only eight in the morning and we had to be in Agrigento by lunchtime.
One of the most difficult decisions in our short itinerary was what to do about Siracusa. Because of the limited ferry schedule, the two nights I wanted in Siracusa would have only left one day to explore Malta which would definitely have not been enough. In the end, I decided that we would likely be returning to Sicily but Malta was much more questionable. Better to allocate more time to Malta so we wouldn't feel like we'd missed too much there. Because that only left us with one evening and one morning in Siracusa, I decided we would stay on the island of Ortigia and not make any attempt to see the mainland half of the city.
I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but our Booking.com B&B in Ortigia was even smaller than the one in Taormina. The door from the street opened directly into the first bedroom, and there was a smaller bedroom in the back. Instant zero to 100% occupancy. We immediately plunged into an enticingly narrow alley which led us through charming small squares and more alleys to Piazza Archimede and Giulio Moschetti's epic Fontana di Diana.
We were now in the heart of Ortigia. From Piazza Archimede the touristy but charming Via Roma coursed southward and we followed it to Piazza Minerva, a white flagstone-paved pedestrian street lined with cafes and stately buildings. Piazza Minerva took us to Piazza Duomo, where the setting sun was throwing an orange glow onto the upper part of the Siracusa Cathedral.
South of the cathedral, we encountered the seaside promenade Lungomare Alfeo where people were gathering to watch the sunset. Rather than battle for an unreserved table at a highly-recommended restaurant, we took an educated guess at which of the waterside restaurants looked best and did fairly well with our choice. On the way back home, we stopped at the gelateria at the corner of Piazza Minerva and Via Roma for cake, cappucino, and a cold glass of Zibibbo.
The next morning we were laser-focused on Ortigia's daily produce and fish market, which my research indicated was one of the best in Sicily. The first place we saw was a food truck selling horsemeat sandwiches and we sat down without hesitation. I purchased more amazing strawberries and we had them with the sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Before tackling the crowded market, we passed by some stalls where local fishermen were selling such oddities as skate, eels, and slipper lobster. At one stall a couple of guys were extracting sea urchin roe from the shells, but at ten bucks for a shot glass of roe we decided to pass.
The Ortigia market wasn't as large as the ones in Palermo and Catania, but it was the most artisanal we had seen. The cheese and sausage vendors seemed to have every variety imaginable, and every fruit and vegetable looked like it had been individually polished. It was also one of the more crowded markets we had seen, mainly with tourists.
We didn't have to leave town until two, so we still had plenty of time to explore the island. We plunged back into the network of alleys we'd discovered the previous evening and did our best to make our way down to the southern tip of the island without using any of the wider streets.
We emerged from the alleys at the base of the small peninsula at the southern end of Ortigia. At the very tip of the peninsula is Castello Maniace, a well-preserved medieval fort that we had just enough time to explore.
We made one last stop at the Ortigia market before retrieving the car. I'd spotted an absolutely amazing deli on the main market street that morning but we'd just finished eating. Now that we'd burned off some calories walking around, it seemed like a good idea to get some sandwiches to eat on the drive down to the Malta ferry at Pozzallo. My only regret is that there wasn't an option for a panini with everything.
Another day in Siracusa would have definitely been welcome, but as always I was amazed at how much we were able to see and do in less than twenty-four hours. We had given ourselves plenty of time to get to Pozzallo and there wasn't any traffic, so I had time to drop everyone off at the check-in for the ferry before returning a short distance up the road to the paid parking. I followed the signs up an incline and immediately encountered a guy in a yellow safety vest who waved me into a spot on an ungated dirt lot close by. I got out and the guy immediately came over gesturing and making sounds that sounded like Italian but were mostly incoherent. It was clear he wanted money, and eventually he wrote down a figure that didn't seem too unreasonable. I was about to pull out my wallet, but I suddenly remembered the parking scam for the Erice funicular that I'd read about. I asked the guy if he would give me a receipt, and he pulled out some slips of colored paper and waved them in front of me. I could see they were completely blank, which was enough for me to take a closer look at the surroundings. At one end of the dirt lot, I saw a gated lot that was clearly marked "Ferry Parking" in Italian, so I walked towards it with the vest guy following and gesticulating next to me the whole time. He peeled off as soon as I walked into the lot and I quickly found an office with a woman sitting inside. I asked her if the vest guy worked for her and she shook her head. "That parking isn't safe. He should not be there." I walked back to my car, half expecting the vest guy to attack me, but he was nowhere in sight. I drove the car into the real lot, paid 18 Euros for three days, and got my real receipt. Having foiled my first scam attempt in Sicily, I walked down the hill and joined Mei Ling and the kids just as they started allowing people to board the ferry. We were all about to experience a brand new country.
After Taormina, the logical next stop would have been Siracusa, just an hour and a half down the coastal highway. However, the Siracusa market is open every day except Sunday and the Modica market is only on Thursdays, which meant that we had to drive all the way to Sicily's southeastern tip. Markets are a very big deal for us. Thankfully there wasn't any traffic and the roads were on low ground so we made it to Ragusa in time for a late lunch. Ragusa is one of four towns in the area renowned for their beauty and Baroque architecture. What is Baroque? I wish I could explain it. As best as I can understand it, it's an architectural style best defined by its era (immediately post-Renaissance) and its ornamental flair. In fact, the word "baroque" has come to mean excessively ornamental or extravagant in style in popular parlance. Having seen examples of Baroque architecture throughout southern and central Europe I have a difficult time describing it, but I know it when I see it.
Ragusa's Duomo di San Giorgio is a beautiful Baroque church and brings considerable gravitas to the main square of the old town. Between our illegal parking spot, the intermittent drizzle, and the long staircase up to the front door of the cathedral we decided to confine our exploration to the main square and an excellent gelateria that inhabited it.
Before leaving Ragusa we drove across the ravine to the upper town Ragusa Superiore for the classic view of the old town.
The nearby town of Chiaramonte Gulfi is nicknamed the "balcony of Sicily" for its lofty position on an isolated hilltop and the sweeping views supposedly available from many locations around town. Soon after we arrived at the center of town the skies really began to open up. During one downpour we took refuge in the town's main church where we got to enjoy a choir practice.
We braved the rain and explored a few more streets but never found anything close to a view. Eventually we gave up and retreated to our car, with dampened clothes but undampened spirits. It was the only rainout of our trip, so we had little to complain about. We proceeded to Modica, where we had an Airbnb for the night. On Via San Benedetto da Norcia, the elevated road that took us to our residential mini-suburb, there was an overlook with amazing views of the old town.
The Airbnb was an entertaining place run by an elderly couple who didn't speak a word of English. It was one of the few times that my efforts to learn a few words of Italian paid off. The apartment was filled with fragile tchotchkes and assorted bric-a-brac so we had to incarcerate the kids in the main bedroom the whole time we were indoors. That was motivation enough to get ourselves moving quickly, but there was only time for dinner on the main drag of the old town (unsurprisingly named Corso Umberto I).
In the morning we were excited to see the Thursday market, which had the annoying habit of moving back and forth between the widely disparate locations of Modica Alta and the Sacro Cruore suburb. I had researched the expected location of that morning's market and all my inquiries pointed to Sacro Cruore, but twenty minutes of driving around the area revealed nothing. Eventually a solitary vendor informed me the market was actually in Modica Alta that day, so we reversed course and entered that rat's nest of tiny residential streets. We did find the market, but it was largely focused on clothes and other dry goods and there was very little produce to be seen. It was quite disappointing, because we had structured our itinerary around the weekly markets in Taormina and Modica and it turned out we shouldn't have bothered. Due to some blocked streets, it was also a mighty struggle to get out of the neighborhood. We still hadn't seen the old town of Modica, so we drove back down to Modica Bassa and stopped in front of the main church, Duomo di San Giorgio. Was it the same Duomo di San Giorgio we had seen in Ragusa, being trucked back and forth between the two cities every day? Probably not, but given the similarity of the facades I wouldn't have been surprised. There wasn't anywhere to park, so Mei Ling and I took turns exploring the immediate surroundings.
We had a mediocre lunch at the far end of Corso Umberto I, and then headed to Noto. Noto's historic center proved to be much more walkable and impressive than anything we had seen in Ragusa and Modica. It seemed like there was another gorgeous church or palace everywhere we looked.
Cleo, Ian, and I climbed the narrow, winding staircase up to the bell tower of Chiesa di Montevergine for views of Noto's cathedral and the rooftops of the old town.
We took a brief tour of the Nicolaci Palace and then stopped at the famous Caffe Sicilia for gelato. It was nice to be outside on the main street of the beautiful old town, but I couldn't detect any difference between Caffe Sicilia's gelato and any of the versions we'd had previously. Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a gelato connoisseur. I recorded one last stroll down Corso Vittorio Emanuele with my video sunglasses and then we got back on the road to Siracusa.