Recently, I escaped the chill of Switzerland and jetted down south for the weekend. The destination: Catania, Sicily.
Located just off the toe of the Italian boot, the island of Sicily – Sicilia in Italian – is a rugged nugget of historical significance, geographical dynamism, and cultural intrigue.
For a weekend in this fabled land, I booked my accommodations through Airbnb. As I have shared on Global Heartbeat before, Airbnb gives travelers access to a local perspective of the world, which can translate to an unforgettable travel experience and sometimes, even true friendship. My Sicilian experience was defined by my Airbnb hosts, Andreina and Vito, a couple who opened up their lovely home, shared scrumptious meals featuring local dishes, and treated Justin and me like family.
After saying our final goodbyes to our Sicilian parents, I sent a message to Andreina: Would you be willing to give an interview for Global Heartbeat? She kindly honored my request, and with the translation assistance of her son Alessandro, Andreina gives us her perspective on Sicily:
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDREINA OF SICILY
Will you please describe yourself?
I was born in Naples, where I spent most of my youth. However, I really think of Sicily as my home country. Both my husband and I have very deep Sicilian roots that date back generations to the costal tradition of small fisherman, as well as from the inland wheat-producing region, granaio di Roma.
In your opinion, what are the most important landmarks or towns on the island of Sicilia?
Sicily is a country to experience with all its traditions, traditions that date back thousands of years. Visitors should climb Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, to get a sense of size and also to get a feeling for the diversity of this island. Our island offers scenery ranging from the black lava beach of Acitrezza to the white sand dunes of Marzamemi along the east coast, from the the central countryside of the yellow wheat fields around Enna to the green hills of wine-producing Trapani on the northwestern tip of Sicily.
Once you have appreciated the breathtaking sights from the top of Etna, you can go down south to admire the baroque power of the churches in Noto. The religious traditions of the island have shaped its history, its culture and its famous mafia. Of all churches in Sicily, be sure not to miss the Duomo di Siracusa, the Cathedral of Syracuse. Once a Greek temple, it was a mosque before becoming one of the finest Christian basilicas in Europe. The cathedral is a perfect sample of Sicily, an organic potpourri of cultures.
At last, immerse yourself in the lush hills surrounding Trapani to relax while drinking a good local wine. You can stroll on the beach and visit the saline, the salt flats of Sicily. For more mystic moments, climb the hill to the town of Erice in search of the perfect sunset vista.
When is the best time of year to visit Sicily?
When? Always, of course.
If you’re looking for warm weather, spring starts in March when temperatures rarely fall below 10 degrees centigrade (50°F), especially on the coast. August is busy and very hot. Winter is somehow underestimated, as traveling around the island is cheaper and it’s the season for very colorful, local religious festivals like the vibrant Sant’Agata in Catania.
What makes Sicily special to you?
I can’t think of my life without the beautiful sand beaches of Siracusa or the view of majestic Etna smoking calmly from afar. But Sicily is not just beautiful. It’s also quite tasty!
I have a true passion for food. As a Sicilian woman, I struggled for most of my career as a bank manager to get recognized in a male dominated environment. However, when it came to taking care of the home – focolaio familiare – I feel like it’s a task that has always been fully mine as Mamma.
Cooking for me is not just about creating delicious food from my land or feeding my family. Cooking is about sharing traditions and recreating the flavors that bring all of my family back together and link us to our ancestors. For example, my mother used to make “salsa” a certain way, and now I prepare it like she did. So, when I cook for my now grown-up children, we remember all the times we ate together as family. The flavors suddenly bring us back to my mother, Nonna, to Christmas dinners and summers on the beach.
For me, Sicily is in the smell of mandorle tostate (toasted almonds) that are sold during the Sant’Agata festival, a huge celebration in honor of the patron saint of Catania held every February. It’s reflected in the mille luci (“bright lights” of fireworks) that shine on the “torrone e olivette” (olive-shaped marzipan cookies). This is why Sicily is special to me.
What Sicilian dishes should every visitor try at least once?
Sicily is famous for its food, most notably its pastries, cakes, and cookies. Don’t miss cannoli di ricotta and cassata. Also, you have to try our marzipan. When it comes to local cuisine, try parmigiana di melanzane, pasta al nero di seppia, and involtini di pescespada.
Sicily is also famous for street food, and you should not leave without trying arancini. My absolute favorite is a sweet and sour caloric bomb called Raviola alla Ricotta. It’s like a deep friend brioche with Ricotta cheese inside – incredibly fattening and tasty, which in a way summarizes a lot of our cuisine.
For those with a more refined palette, I recommend trying the Cassatelle di Agira or i Brutti ma Buoni in Trapani.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Sicily?
Come and enjoy it first hand! Vito and I will be happy to welcome you to the island.
It took a team effort to bring Andreina’s words to you. Because she couldn’t fully express herself in English, Andreina called her son who lives in London to help. As she shared her thoughts in Italian, Alessandro typed them up in English. Alessandro passed her interview on to me, and I made a few edits for clarity and the flow of language. Thus, the completed interview in English is a paraphrasing of Andreina’s reflections on Sicily. I am grateful for her contribution to Global Heartbeat, for Vito’s cappuccinos and driving directions, and for Alessandro’s encouragement.
Andreina and Vito are Airbnb hosts in Catania. If you’d like to get to know them and visit the island of Sicilia, you can book your stay with them here. Also, be sure to visit their own website, which features Andreina’s recipes, personal notes, and more on life in Sicily.
Did you know that Sicily had such a rich heritage? Does Andreina’s description of Sicily make you more curious or more hungry? :) Have you ever traveled with Airbnb?