This beach gave us Indians first out of the country an insight into how a beach in a foreign land looks like. From the Venice city centre we boarded a boat bus to Lido. It took us more than an hour to reach. The junk jewellery shop just outside is a must check but for cheaper and good stuff girls must ransack the shops in city centre. Caution : carry your sunscreen.
.June 17th, Terminal 3, Fiumicino Airport, Rome. I landed here a little after 8 am on a Ryanair flight from Palermo and have 7 hours before my 4 pm flight to Colombo. I’ve found a comfortable, quiet spot by a gift shop at this roundabout of humanity to present my last days in Italy. * I woke early and spent a couple of hours on the terrace, writing, before checking out of the hostel at 9.30 am. Ilea was at the front desk and after thanking her for a wonderful stay, walked across town to the bus terminal for the 10.15 am bus to Catania, the first of two legs to Palermo. One hour later I was deposited outside its main bus stand and waited an hour before the second leg, deciding not to venture on a wander of downtown Catania which seemed like a gritty big city with unremarkable architecture where busy folks went hurriedly about their business. The second leg took two hours as the coach cruised west and north on the motorway through the attractive hills of the Sicilian heartland to the island’s Capital on its coast with the Tyrrhenian Sea. Following Andrea’s instructions, I took public bus No. 107 from the railway station situated next to the bus terminal and alighted five stops later at the Roma Poste building on Via Roma. I turned left on Via Bara All’Olivella, walking until Teatro Massimo and around it to leafy Via Volturno, finding ‘A casa di Ami’ on the first floor of the third building on the left. I gathered from the architecture that this was the old quarter of the city and even though at a far superior standard when compared to Indian cities, cleanliness levels weren’t what you’d associate with urban Europe. Nonetheless, spotless Taormina wasn’t a patch on ruddy Palermo and its beguiling flavours where locals and tourists employed public faculties alike, even as a million of the former went about their daily subsistence. I was welcomed by Maria, the manager, who showed me to my bed in a six bed, mixed gender dormitory. The eccentric hostel and my favourite by far, was a converted apartment in a Fascist era building where percussion instruments and other peculiar artefacts were on display along the ochre walls of the common areas. The large luxurious bathroom across the hall came with a tub and that unnecessary waste of space, the bidet. For those of you who aren’t in the know about this silly installation, it’s a low basin on which you sit and appropriately adjust yourself so that the water jet it shoots is received with its full momentum at your exit gate. Some ludicrous versions even have a hot and cold water option. It’s the second part of a two step cleaning process; first the toilet paper procedures on the main commode followed by an uncomfortable shuffle with your pants at your ankles to the bidet for the water jet. God forbid the commode and bidet are located at opposite ends of the bathroom. In that case I guess it’s just best you step out of your pants and inners entirely, lest you trip over your shackled ankles and injure yourself, transbathroom shimmy. I can’t get my head around the idea of rising from the commode half done so unequivocally announce that the Indians got this one right with the health faucet feature though my brother mentioned he was in love with the bidet and wanted to take one back to India. The old quarter of the 2700 year old city with its palaces, piazzas and duomos roughly occupies the urban blocks between the waterfront and Via Papireto from east to west and Via Cavour/Volturno and Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle from north to south, though there is much to see in the modern city that extends far beyond this grid. One of the largest Mediterranean cities, Palermo has throughout the course of its history played a pivotal role in the successes of its ruling regimes, thanks to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Changing hands between the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans before being included in the Unified Kingdom of Italy in the nineteenth century, the multiculturally tinged society is awash with these influences in its ethnicities, architecture and cuisine. I put a load of laundry for process in the washing machine and decided to eat lunch while it was being done, exploring the narrow lanes behind Teatro Massimo and finding a restaurant serving Sicilian cuisine, buffet style, but with a difference – only one helping was allowed on two optional plate sizes, small at 5 Euro and large at 8 Euro. I opted for the biggie and noticed the manager watching from the corner of his eye as I stacked my plate a few inches high. Fair is fair boy, these are your rules, but as a result, my first Sicilian meal was a cacophony of tastes with random portions of spicy legumes and vegetable stir fries and coloured curries occupying my cutlery on every dig. I returned to the hostel to put my clothes to dry and spent a few hours indoors, sleeping and writing, before the day cooled a little. The June Solstice is less than a week away so when I departed a little after 7 pm to explore a section of the old quarter, the city was still bathed in bright sunshine. The 14th of June was also the day Italy and England took on each other in their opening World Cup campaigns and the excitement in Palermo was palpable, exponentially ascending as the day wore on. By 6 pm the main streets in the city centre were blocked to traffic as thousands of football crazy Palermitans filled the street-side bars and cafes, drinking and partying in the build up to the midnight kickoff. Maria had informed me that a giant screen was installed at an open space by the marina, so I planned the route of my exploratory expedition in such a manner that I reached the public screening venue at 11 pm. Walking west from the hostel on Via Volturno, I turned left, exploring the maze of by-lanes in the charismatic urban block between Via Volturno and Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle before turning east and passing the impressive Baroque architecture of Quattro Canti at the latter’s intersection with Via Maqueda. Continuing on Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle to Piazza Marina by the waterfront, I followed the waterside broad-walk to Castello a Mare, the screening venue, where the giant screen was part of a carnival with open air food and drink stalls and a live DJ whipping up a frenzy. The music stopped at kickoff as thousands of fans in Azzuri jerseys, painted faces and waving flags ecstatically cheered and clapped every good pass and attacking move and booed and cursed every bad pass and foul. You can imagine the scenes of elation when Marchisio scored for Italy in the 35th minute and the deathly silence that followed when Sturridge equalized a few minutes later. The energy going into the half was that of mild disappointment but at the start of the second half the spectators were back with gusto. All hell broke loose when Balotelli scored in the 50th minute and a mild tremor was recorded in Palermo when the referee blew the final whistle. Like an energetic audience at a rock concert, a jumping sea of blue sung the Italian World Cup song in unison and the streets came to life shortly after with processions of cars blaring horns and waving flags. I returned to the hostel at 2.30 am and fell asleep not long after. * Cefalu, one hour east by train along the coast from Palermo, was a recommended day trip that I took the next day. I was out of the hostel at 9 am and walked the chaotic streets of the Sunday market around narrow Porta Carini, indulging in a pair of shoes (15 Euro) and a haircut (6 Euro). Exploring the lanes off Via Roma, I walked south along it to Palermo Centrale and just about made the 11.10 am Regional for Cefalu, full with young beach goers. The postcard perfect seaside town rests under the aegis of a mighty crag, La Rocca, by the clear blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Fronted by a long sweeping curve of sandy beach, the charming town stretches west from the historic district on a rocky headland to its newer neighbourhoods, the medieval section complete with an old stone seawall, narrow cobblestone alleyways, a harbour and an impressive 12th century Norman era cathedral whose twin bell towers majestically dominate the town’s urban skyline. Arabesque on the outside, the mosaics of Christ and his disciples on the inner walls of the altar are masterpieces of Byzantine art. This is all wonderful but isn’t really why Cefalu is so popular-just an hour from Palermo, the small town swells in numbers during the summer months with tourists from Sicily, Italy and the rest of Europe seeking the beachlife. There were thousands of them sun baking on the sandy shore, not unlike a million penguins in a colony, crammed on an arctic ice shelf. I explored the narrow winding lanes and the impressive Cathedral in the agreeable old quarter, walking as far as the stone seawall along the town’s northern edge on its headland. Just below and outside the wall was a narrow path built over the buffer rocks that I trod on while the sea gently crashed alongside. Taking a long lunch in the shade of a beachfront cafe, I watched as a multitude of Caucasians foolishly surrendered their nice white complexion and following a double gelato, returned to the train station for the 3.15 pm Regional to Palermo. I spent the next few hours at the hostel, sleeping and writing, until the sun became less harsh and embarked on my evening explorations a little after 9 pm. I walked north along the commercial Via Maqueda, past the showrooms of Ferregamo and Bulgari to Teatro Politeama, fronted by the sprawling Piazza Re Ruggero Settimo. Walking east on Via Amari by the posh restaurants until the harbour, I turned right and followed the main road south to the marina and Castello a Mare. The maze of streets behind the marina - Palermo’s principal nightlife venue- was milling with well dressed young people solicited by the succession of bars and restaurants with live music and giant teles screening the football. I stopped for drinks (diet cola) and dinner (antipasti and cheese platter) at one of the establishments showing the France versus Honduras game and was congratulated by a patron when it was over, perhaps assuming I was French. How is that even possible? Between the two don’t I look more Honduran? I was back at the hostel and in bed a little before 1 am. * 16th of June, the last full day of my Italian experience. After 19 days, 10 train segments, 7 regions, 5 hostels, 2 blow-outs, 1 wedding and half a hook-up, it was almost the end. Speaking of hostels, here are my recommendations for smashing hostel etiquette: Leave the bathroom looking, feeling and smelling exactly as you received it- spotless, dry, devoid of personal property and odourless. A helpful tip for the odour predicament is to end your morning routines with a shower. Steam and shower gel do well to neutralize embarrassing smells. If you have to use the bathroom for a major output movement more than once a day then couple every episode with a shower; there is no downside to taking many showers, especially for you hirsute lot. Use toilet paper to wipe the sink and floor dry, and please, for heaven’s sake, dry your sorry underwear elsewhere. Likewise with the kitchen. Wash and dry all the utensils and cutlery you use and place them back in their racks. If you buy food from outside that needs to be stored in the refrigerator then don’t be jackass and label your name on it, it’s food, it’s to be shared. However, don’t also be a jackass and consume any food a bigger jackass has labelled for himself. Smile and be courteous even though many lodgers are not. Nonetheless, approach being friendly with caution, refraining from pursing conversation when the opposite side shows disinterest. You’ll know this instantly. Listen to music through headphones if the other boarders in your vicinity are asleep and be mindful of silencing morning alarms as soon as they go off. For some reason Wendy had a 5 am alarm that managed to wake all the dorm residents but her. Marco, who returned late every night following his kitchen duties, used to be livid. If you feel the need to release a gaseous build up from your bowels then this is what you do: run out of the hostel premises and into the mountain range in the neighbouring district and look around. If you’re sufficiently satisfied that there isn’t a soul in sight then calmly execute its liberation. Just like they do in their own personal spaces, most female boarders dress comfortably at hostels and this entails loose, minimal clothing. I know it’s the tendency for any male worth his salt to want to take note of skimpily dressed women, but gentlemen, do not stare, nay even look, under any circumstances, at female hostel guests as they go about their activities. Slyly put cun if you have to. Oh yes, and fellows, be cognisant of morning wood and take appropriate action. Right. On the ancient sea route between Greece and North Africa, the city of Akragas was established by Greek settlers in 582 B.C. Described by the Greek poet Pindar as “the most beautiful city built by mortals”, it rapidly rose in prosperity and importance to become one of the most important colonies of Magna Graecia. The current archaeological site of the ancient sprawling metropolis is located by the city of Agrigento on the south west coast of Sicily, two hours by train from the Capital. In accordance with the tumultuous history of the region, the city was the possession of a succession of empires until Sicily was adopted by plebiscite into the Unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Agrigento lies perched on an expansive ridge by the edge of a plateau with superlative views of the Mediterranean Sea. However, apart from the town’s visually delightful old quarter straddled around picturesque Via Athenea and its medieval architecture, the remainder of the modern town is an uninspiring cluster of boring concrete buildings. I had also read in the Rough Guide that this was one of Sicily’s poorest regions and therefore a stronghold of the Mafia and with that knowledge debated if every white male with dark hair and sunglasses was a Cosa Nostra operative. Arriving a little after 10.30 am, I first explored the medieval section stretching west and uphill along Via Athenea before taking a bus to the site of the ruined Greek city a few kilometres away, the largest such archaeological area in the world. The main road divides the expansive location into an east and west section and if you’re really a Greek freak you’ll need a few days to explore both sides in detail. For the instant gratification brigade there’s the Valle de Templi or the Valley of the Temples (entry 13 Euro), a part of the ancient Akragas site on its southern boundary and its poster boy. This series of seven Doric style temples in varied states of ruin can be seen in several hours, but if you can’t be buggered to do even that, then just explore the eastern side of the temple series of which the Temple of Concordia is the jewel in the crown. This temple, dedicated to the Greek goddess of harmony, was built between 440 and 430 B.C. and is the best preserved specimen of ancient Greek architecture in the world, owing its excellent state of preservation to its conversion to a Catholic church in the 6th century A.D. The deserted beach town of San Leone at the edge of Europe and 4 kilometres south from the Akragas site was where I took lunch at a restaurant by the sandy, rather dirty and unattractive beach before taking a public bus back to Agrigento Centrale and the 5.15 pm Regional to Palermo. I spent the remainder of the day at the hostel, writing with my legs up on the couch in the common area, extremely tired after the long, hot day. With the 4.15 am airport shuttle for my 6.55 am flight to Rome originating from Teatro Politeama, a 20 minute walk away, it was lights out for me at midnight. * Immigration and security procedures completed, I’m seated by Gate 7 as UL582 is being prepared for the nine hour flight to Colombo. I’ve decided to splurge on my last lunch in Italy at a posh restaurant, excellently located with a panoramic view of Fiumicino Airport’s two intersecting runways. I also notice that the restaurant employs a very hot waitress.