I am writing from my dream morning nook/expanse. As you by now know, mornings are sacred for me and one of the challenges of this trip has been space. Most often, one of the kids is sleeping in a common room which means that my morning time of coffee, writing, reading, meditation, etc. is compromised. But today I wake up, after an unbelievably long + obstacle-ridden + lucky travel day, in Siracusa overlooking the Sicilian coastline. Check out this view from our terrace.
But that’s besides the point. I wasn’t supposed to write about Sicily yet because I know nothing about it – outside of fishing boats in the distance, sparkling clear ocean, lapping waves, illuminated horizon, and some mysterious hullabaloo at 2am when it seemed like a Sicilian family was down in the water doing something shady (I’m sure they weren’t – my Sicilian skills are worse than my Italian skills).
Rewind to Pompeii + the Amalfi Coast
We had a few more days in Sorrento, where the highlight was a day in Pompeii. We had an incredible guide who was rather taken with our kids’ knowledge of Pompeii and ancient Roman civilization. We had done ‘school’ that week on Pompeii, so they were armed with some contextual understanding of the place, all of that on top of the smaller ones' obsession – I mean, healthy interest – in Greek/Roman mythology. So while our kids and the guide were mutually enamoured around Roman history and mythology, I must admit there were times I kind of trailed off... Favourite kid parts: the 'fast food' soup restaurants, the street fountains, and the syncretic Egyptian gods wearing Roman togas. After that, another gondola ride up high for the boys (having built sufficient character in this department, I decided to pass and go shopping in Sorrento).
Ok, here is where the perfection comes in. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a place fit so well with us like this seaside town. Recognize it from these Escher drawings?
Atrani is a tiny town next door to the more famous and wealthy Amalfi. There are a few restaurants in the square, a small market and a produce shop and that’s about it. For us, it was a dream. We had a rooftop terrace overlooking the town, the sea in the distance, hanging of laundry on clotheslines, gossip across roofs, church bells ringing, the delicious sfogliatelle, etc. It was perfect for us because we immersed ourselves in the experience of living in a little neighbourhood; by the end of the week, we knew all of the restaurant and shop owners, and the kids could explore Atrani totally on their own – winding up and down passageways, paint peeling, echoes of civilizations and civilizations, beach combing of pottery-encased rocks.
Beyond this, the perfection lay in the access to hiking paths. Each day, we would walk for miles and miles, up and down – over ancient rocky staircases and under arches, wandering to unexpected vistas and mountaintops, neighbouring towns, encountering virtually no other hikers, returning back home on ferries and buses. It gave us the independence to explore, the comfort of nature, and the proximity to more urban infrastructure if we needed. We dropped in on the gorgeous but overloaded Positano and Amalfi a couple of times, but always sought sanctuary back in the lovely Atrani. At this stage in the trip, this may in fact be our happy place. Long hikes dotted with new restaurants or foods/drinks and friendly shop owners. Then back to the beach with our legs throbbing in all the good ways. Here are a couple of day trips:
Hike on the Path to the Gods
A 5 mile hike from Bomerano (long, winding bus to get there) to Nocelle, on to Montepertuso, and then dropping down 1700 steps into Positano. Very steep, spectacular views. We anticipated a long, four hour hike, but we did the main route in 1.5 hours(!!), ending at a cute little restaurant in Nocelle to refuel. The last couple of pics are waiting shots – for a ferry home that was delayed by an hour (after we had already been waiting for it for two hours!). One plus of this trip is that the kids have become habituated to waiting and figuring out how to pass the time. One shot shows Emmet and Asa having collected a bunch of sea glass and making a game of it at the table; another shows them beach combing while we were all enduring the chaos trying to figure out what happened to our boat.
Hike from Atrani to the Santuario Santa Maria del Bando
Just 750 steps up from our house (at this point, that was nothing!), stood what looked like an ancient church/sanctuary. We had tried to go up there on our first day, but it was closed. We messaged the caretaker and made an appointment to come back in a few days to visit. What an experience. This caretaker of the sanctuary had, during Covid, DISCOVERED ancient ruins in this cave (Grotta del Paradiso) that had been enshrouded in overgrowth - likely a monks' sanctuary from the 10th century. He was still in the process of excavating it himself – archaeologists are scheduled to come in the fall – and we explored the cave and the sanctuary with him.
Hike from Atrani to Pontone to the Torre del Capo di Atrani and back
Chris did this one alone with the kids. Obie and I sat on the beach and read. Winding cobblestone roads through orchards, steep paths, fortress ruins on top of a razor-sharp ridge overlooking Amalfi and Atrani, and a watchtower dating from the Amalfi Republic days.
Hike from Atrani to Ravello down into Minori
Sweet hike that led us up to the high-up town of Ravello overlooking orchards and the beautiful coast, and then down to the beach town of Minori where we experienced our first lido. Limoncello spritzes underneath a beach umbrella! And then a relaxed ten minute ferry ride home.
A few Amalfi pics (paper making, wandering, lemon sorbetto)
Train to Sicily
Yesterday was a ridiculous day. We knew it would be long. It feels tedious to write about it and I will most definitely forgive you if you bow out on this one (all except for my dad the train buff, who will be salivating at the train mishaps). But if I don’t, it will likely get memory holed into the unconscious reserves of my mind, so here it goes – in bullet points because that is the type of prose worthy of the day.
First, to set the stage. We have A LOT of bags. Like, a lot. Like a large check bag and a backpack per person. I wish we were those carry-on families who boast about everyone shouldering their own pack, but we are not. So take that into account as a I regale you with the last 24 hours.
- Wake everyone up at 7am. Another move from a place we love. It’s starting to wear on us.
- Out the door at 8am. Picture the scene: our place is up HIGH overlooking the town. The "streets" are winding narrow stairways and paths. A car cannot come there. So we have to carry a lot of very heavy bags down the many, many flights of stairs. After several round trips, with the kids waiting in the town square with our bags, we are sweaty and done.
- The driver is late. Miscommunication where to pick us up. Then he comes about 10 minutes late.
- Long, windy road to Salerno (really, it was only a bit over an hour) where we get the train. It’s beautiful, but we all for some reason feel carsick (despite the fact that only one of us gets carsick), but the lovely driver doesn’t read the room, so he talks endlessly of the sights along the way, the towns that specialize in very pungent anchovies and the distinct smell that only some people enjoy.
- Haul all the bags into the train station; Chris stays with the kids. I run several blocks away to the Budget car rental in Salerno. You see, we had a car rental in Catania (Sicily) originally booked for noon, which we needed to change to 6pm, but Budget in Catania does not pick up its phone. The man at the counter tells me that even he cannot get in touch with Budget in Catania.
- Run back to train station, waiting to see which platform our train will be on. ALL trains on the screen have been assigned a platform, except for ours. The clock is ticking. Fifteen minutes before our train, the platform number appears; we have to of course climb a bunch of stairs with our many, many bags. We leave the little ones guarding the remaining luggage, run the first round up to the platform, then back again and again. Finally we do it.
- Just two minutes after we lug all our bags up to the platform, the train arrives. We rush to find where Coach 2 is. We leap onto the train, lugging bags, Chris going back and forth to fetch the bags at top speed, kids inside. FINALLY ON THE TRAIN.
- Sweaty, again. Walk to our seats. Someone is in our seats.
- Guess what, WE GOT ON THE WRONG TRAIN. Ours came three minutes later. This train had been delayed, so it arrived to the same platform as our train at approximately the same time. So we are on the wrong train. Bear in mind, this is not a short train ride. We are embarking on an 8-hour train ride that crosses the sea to Sicily.
- The train person who was lovely and had helped me with the bags in the chaos of getting on the train, reassures us. Because we are traveling in the same direction, she says, we can get off the train in an hour at the next stop and re-catch our original train. So we temporarily settle in to our right seats on this wrong train, with all of the Italians around us warmly telling us that it is no problem, just enjoy the ride.
- We get off the train after an hour. Lug all of our bags off. Which again is like a sprint because we have ten bags and approximately two minutes before the train takes off again. Wait 25 minutes because the train is thankfully delayed.
- Our original train approaches. We wait on the platform where we anticipate Coach 2 to be, basically where we got off since we were on Coach 2 on our wrong train. The train arrives – we do the chaotic dance of bags and children and multiple trips and hoping the train doesn’t leave without us. We go to our seats. Occupied again?!! We are informed that this is Coach 7.
- So we are at the opposite end of the train we need to be on, with a stack of luggage and kids. I wait with all the bags while Chris goes with the kids to find Coach 2 and our seats. He comes back with a look that tells me something is wrong again.
- Train trivia time! You train buffs out there will know that this is a renowned train because it goes on a ferry (Richard Scarry’s fantasy) to cross the waters over to Sicily. Well, it turns out that before the train is loaded onto the ferry, it is literally divided in two, with one part going south to Siracusa (ours), and one part going west to Palermo. It already has an engine car in the middle of the train ready to go after the split. Unfortunately, coach 7 where we embarked is part of the Palermo-bound section, so all this is to say that we cannot walk through the train to Coach 2 and our seats because there is an engine car in the way.
- We settle into some seats behind this mid-train engine car, and wait another 50 minutes. At the next stop, we dash off of the train, down the platform two cars with all our bags, and lug every last bag and child back onto the correct half of the train. As we triumphantly and exhaustedly make our way to our correct coach, we find again there is someone sitting in our seats. This time, it is they who are wrong! Invader ousted, we collapse into our chairs.
- The next four hours were fine, but a bit confusing. Train boarding the ferry (actually quite cool), stuffy and hot on the train with the AC turned off, no announcements to know what was going on, no food on train, stop in Messina station for a long time. It felt like we were back on some of our train rides in Asia; we just had to abandon our need to know.
- We finally reach Catania, our station. Now you might be wondering why we are going to Catania if our house is in Siracusa, another hour down the line. Funny you should ask! We got a rental car reservation months and months ago that allowed us to do a one way trip, dropping our car in the town where we take a ferry to Stromboli (our next Sicily destination after Siracusa). We could not for the life of us find another rental car that would allow us to do that. So we decided we would keep our original rental car, but get off the train an hour early, take a taxi to the rental car place at the Catania airport (15 min away), then drive the last hour to Siracusa.
- From here on out, everything went right. Train to taxi. Taxi to rental car. Rental car Carplay actually works – English language, music, and maps. Rental car to grocery store. Grocery store to Siracusa house overlooking the water and some very tired kids. 10pm to bed.
If you made it this far, here are a couple of train & ferry photos, including the first one when we figured out we were on the wrong train. Now off to our first day in Siracusa.