29.08.2012 - 02.09.2012
Mazzarino is a town in the south of Sicily, about three hours driving out of Milazzo. Mazzarino is Rita's town. Rita is our landlady for four days. She (and her vintner husband Reno who my bloke reckons is not Sicilian) owns the apartment in Via Cannada, 3; directly below her own. There has been considerable email communication between my bloke and Rita in the prepatory stages of our tour - he had her pegged as mid forties, really well organised and pretty assertive. Right on all counts (positive feedback time - sometimes he's right). She's actually a human dynamo who loves Sicily and loves Mazzarino.
Rita is a schoolie - teaches PE (hence the body!) at a small school in Mazzarino; has a vineyard which produces 40,000 bottles a year (chardy and a very nice red); is a great cook (made a birthday cake for me - story to follow) and a great host; currently moving towards the principalship through a series of certifications and tests. In addition she cares for an elderly mother and two grown sons and in 2012 thought it might be a nice little earner to let out the apartment (where I started, our apartment) to touristos.
We first set eyes on Rita after I rang her to let her know we had driven up and down dozens of narrow streets and lanes trying to find the apartment. She directed my bloke to park in the Piazza near the church while she walked to the same place to meet us. "Hello," she said, sticking her head into the car via the driver's window, "you must-a be-a a-Don?" Salutations we're shared and then, "I- a get into the back of the car and tell for you where to go." With that, like lightning, she was in the car sitting almost on Larissa's lap, providing directions. And so, we met Rita.
When we got into the apartment (through 3 metre high doors opened by the biggest key you've ever seen, then up 37 marble covered steps) Rita took control, showing us around; opening the fridge door to indicate the pesto she had made for us to use over some pasta ('boil for some minutes, and dry completely, only then mix through the pesto and serve with some Parmesan, delic-ee-ous, you will love it.'), showing us the roof top garden off the kitchen which we could use to have some coffee ("I have only the Italian coffee maker, not the American one. You know how to use the Italian one? You need no more than 3 small spoonfuls of coffee and it will be perfect. Just put it on the heat and let the water boil.") or some vino ('I have left a bottle of our white and red wine for you to have, with some olives in zee afternoon, I take it you to the shop to show where you could buy') or maybe an afternoon siesta. By this time I needed one - I was knackered just trying to get all the instructions.
But it wasn't over yet. Rita was very insistent about taking us on a tour of some of the essential places we would need to know about if we were to get the most out of our stay. And this is where we realised that Mazzarino was Rita's town. We were taken to the bar where each morning (if we were to be truly immersed in the culture of Sicily) we should come for our breakfast - "limone granita and brioche and cappuccino". Opposite was the bar where we could go to just for snacks, not coffee. Around the corner we met the owner of the laundromat (lavenderie) who could look after our clothes on Friday. A little further on we met Rita's cousin who owns the best pasticerie in Mazzarino and the place where we should come for our daily brioche with ice cream (glazed sweetened bread roll (to die for!!!) which is halved lengthways and two scoops of ice cream are spread over the dough. In your hand it looks like a mit full but in your mouth it tastes devine. Larissa and I indulged on our second day in Mazzarino; the blokes just couldn't break into the Sicilian macho market so had their ice cream in a small bucket and ate it with spoons - how embarrassing!!!). We then moved on to the delicatessen where Rita introduced us to the proprietor and his staff as well as the delights of three kinds of Sicilian cheese which we tasted along with some salami's made locally - ("do you wish to try this one? It is donkey.").
On our way back to the apartment we walked to the best local cantina, which was not yet open (actually, it had not yet been created. Each night tables are moved onto the narrow lane way, decorative plates are attached to the walls, potted plants are placed around and lattice is situated to separate the cantina from either end of the lane. The transformation is miraculous. The food - traditional Sicilian, is excellent.) and Rita (of course) spoke to an elderly woman sitting outside a closed doorway and we believe she made a booking for "Quattro e otto ora." Certainly when we rocked up at 8.30 that night they were expecting us.
Dinner is worthwhile re-savouring if you would indulge me. No one at the cantina speaks English - and Italian is not our strong suit. We can always manage birre (for her bloke) aqua for mine (and more often than not, Larissa) and vino for me. I even asked for some ice in Italian for my bloke. Then it got tricky. There is no written menu. Our wonderful waitress (later known to us as Blanchete) let us have it in Italian (of course). Before I realised what I had done I "si-d" to the full selection of antipasto. We had frittata, potatoes, mixed meats, breads and about another 5 plates of foods when we then said yes to a secondi of mixed grills. The food was outstanding. We could barely get up from the table when it was all over. We were learning what real non-touristo Sicily is like.
While staying at Mazzarino we drove north a little way to Piazza Armerina to visit a 3rd century AD Roman Villa which has the largest number of original mosaics anywhere in Italy. What a find. This place was sensational - the quality of the mosaics was astounding and the condition of most of them was exceptional. Lots of restoration work ongoing - but the site was quite well managed. We followed this up with a trip into the old town of Piazza Armerina for a bit of a walk around and a visit to the Duomo- the main cathedral of the town. Wonderful. We arrived back to the apartment to find a note from Rita inviting me to look inside the fridge where she had placed the most wonderful birthday cake - a torte like sponge with sweetened ricotta in the centre, icing and lots of chocolate on the outside - looked like a bought one! We went back to the cantina for dinner and Rita joined us for 'happy birthday' singing and some cake. Really truly memorable. Sixty in Sicily!
Another excursion, a little further afield was to Mount Etna. The drive was good with only a few glitches on my part (as the chief navigator - a position which really means I get to hold TomTom) arriving at Refligio Sapienza where we caught a cable car up to the first level, a super sized jeep up to the second level and then the girls walked around the crater. This was a never to be missed day. The landscape was lunar like. Huge boulders lay amongst rocks and gravel of varying sizes. The dark grey coarse-sand- like substance which covered the ground and made walking quite difficult was a combination of ash and lava residue. The complete absence of any vegetation and the only variation in colour was the occasional geological striations of shades of ochre. Some parts of the earth were warm to the touch. Others had steam rising. It was quite eerie. It was nerve wracking to walk along the edge of the crater, in parts less than a couple of meters wide. The guide who accompanied us pointed out lots of things along the way including the fact that there are 300 craters on the site and that before the last eruption (April 2012) where we were standing in front of a massive crater was completely flat. Very interesting indeed.
We were farewelled from Mazzarino by Rita's son Fillipe. As we loaded the car with our luggage, watched by a group of gentlemen onlookers, including one who was so close - staring in disbelief, maybe about the amount of luggage or something else (who knows, he didn't speak) - we knew we had had the privilege of experiencing real life in Sicily. Ciao!