You can’t have just one cannolo so it is often referred to in the plural, cannoli.
Let me explain this most popular dessert in Sicily, now being touted as the dessert du jour internationally. It is said to have been “discovered” in Taormina where I was savoring my first taste while my waiter tells me its history. It is a deep fried cylindrical crispy dough that can be kept for a few weeks. However, when ordered, it is then filled with the heavenly whipped creamy fresh ricotta cheese which has a dash of sugar, a splash of lemon and often grated chocolate has been added and topped with pistachio nuts and lemon peel.
Size varies from pinky finger to triple that, the latter usually sold during “Carnevale Festival”. Ah, that one memory makes me salivate and want to move to Sicily.
But that is not my introduction to this island of history, culture and Sicilian food. Its fabulous history has always been on my bucket list and the lifting of travel restrictions put it at the top. It is a shame Sicily is only a brief stop on some Mediterranean cruises. It is worth a detour for at least a week.
I landed in Palermo, the capital city. It’s a sprawling, busy hub. However, in the older part, the cobble stone roads, the attached small houses, have age. And so does the country.
Founded in 734 BCE after being colonized by several different countries like the Greeks and Romans and dates back 2700. BCE.
Palermo is located on the Northwest of this mountainous island and can boast of culture, architecture, and gastronomy.
The city’s population is just over 850,000 and proud of having the largest opera house in Italy known for its perfect acoustics, opened in 1897 then closed from 1974 to 1997 for total renos. But the acoustics were so great, that Caruso sang there twice.
Also, there are 85 churches, many in Baroque style but also include characteristics from Norman to Art Nouveau. I discovered just how religious the Sicilians are, was when I arrived on a midday Sunday, starving. There wasn’t a cafe, restaurant, or market open in the area I was to stay for the next four days. So, I raided the mini bar: something I have never done before. I ate the bag of chips and several chocolate bars without guilt.
I didn’t want to go to a five-star rated restaurant since I dislike eating alone at these establishments. I asked my concierge at my medium-priced hotel (Hotel Principe di Villafranco, via Turrisi Calonna 4, about US$200 breakfast included) to recommend local eateries.
The best meal I had in Palermo was in the old city. Buatta Cucina Popolane is a bustling restaurant housed in modern decorated rooms of an historic old shop. (via Vittorio Emmuel 176). Black noodles – the colour comes from the “ink of the squid” – was full of tasty, tender, grilled pieces of this meat. Who could resist the smooth-talking waiter who insisted I have dessert and it had to be the restaurant’s specialty? No, it wasn’t cannolo but a light cheesecake made with ricotta cheese. He was right. It was delicious.
Fish, freshly caught each morning, is abundant being on the Mediterranean Sea. There are clams, mussels, sea bass, tuna, red prawn, sardines, squid, to name a few. Veggies, aubergine, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, onions are locally grown. And don’t miss tasting the delicious tarocca blood oranges.
While I was in the ancient quarters, as with other cities, I always look for an old synagogue. Sure enough, down a dark lane-like street, guided by a tiny trilingual sign in Hebrew, Italian and English, there it was, tightly padlocked.
Jews have been in Sicily for 2000 years. Five hundred years ago, Jewish people were exiled or forced to become Catholic. Recently, Archbishop Lorefice has granted Palmero’s emerging Jewish community an unused, dilapidated oratory, Piazza Meschita for a new synagogue, the Great Synagogue, now being renovated.
The next day was an early start for a very full day to Taormina on the East coast.
By car, it takes 3 plus hours each way. The alternative was to take a bus and change to another bus after having to wait an additional hour. No airport, so no planes.
I hired an English-speaking driver/guide recommended by my hotel. Luckily, it was off season so not too many tourists and gratefully hardly any souvenir “pushers”.
I walked through the ancient Corso Umberto gate, (a large, ancient stone arch) and visited the most important monuments: the Greek-Roman theatre, Carvaja Palace, the Cathedral, the public garden and, of course, a viewing of volcanic Mt. Etna, too far to go on a day trip.
Lunch became epic. I ate outdoors at a long table with only Italian speakers. Other than a few polite words, that was my vocabulary. However, it seems all Italians and other Europeans speak a second or third language and one is usually English. We soon started sharing pandemic stories and exchanged pleasantries while I savored a salad that was so fresh with freshly picked sweet tasting tomatoes.
I adore shopping and there were lots of choices and bargains here. There are great temptations with a great variety of top Italian designer label boutiques for those with a passion for fashion.
I was able to see narrow lane-like streets with many uneven cobble stone steps where there are veggie stands packed with daily produce.
My driver drove me down to the beach at least 2 miles (1.6 K), along, a curvy, narrow road. Walking to the beach is for the very fit.
I was not daunted by this mountainous island with its cobblestoned streets or travelling safely on my own. I’m living proof anyone, especially recently widowed seniors, like me, now with a slight limp, can manage easily with a little planning. Adventure travel combined with a dash of luxury motivates me. I plan to return to see more of Sicily on my next trip to Italy.
1.There are direct flights to Palermo from European capitals. I flew direct flight from London.
2. I threw a dart at 4-star hotels and stayed at Hotel Principe Villafranca. Well located, spotless, no restaurant but they do serve breakfast. It was okay for the price.
3. Travelling on my own does have challenges but I follow a few long ago learned tips including, always be polite.
4. I always carry the hotel address and phone number.
5. I never tell strangers where I am staying or for how long.
6. I find getting around by taxies, recommended by my hotel, easier than trying to navigate unfamiliar metro, subway or bus stops. I justify this by using funds I might have spent on buying that great pair of shoes or wonderful cashmere pullover.
7. I don’t just wear my fashion sunglasses for the look. I never make eye contact with men when I am out walking and I tell all my girlfriends to wear a simple wedding band, married or not when they are travelling on their own. I tell them to leave their diamonds including the fake ones at home too. Pick pockets don’t carry their jewelry loop with them.
8. I eat my main meal of the day at a café in the early afternoon. Unless there is a nice bistro next to the hotel, I feel safer not walking to or from restaurants in the dark or worrying about getting taxies. I often pick-up take-out food I find at the local market to enjoy in my room during the evening.
9. I carry small amounts of cash for taxies.
10. I travel with a folding cane if my leg starts to hurt and to navigate cobblestone streets.
11. I try to enjoy the wheelchair service airlines provide to ‘mature’ travelers with canes and limps.
Barbara Kingstone is an award-winning writer who has been writing about travel, fashion and personalities for 40 years. She has lived and worked on four continents. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK, Australia and China. Her blog about luxury travel is Indulged Traveller.