To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. – Goethe
Italians are apparently great lovers, but the closest I ever came to experiencing the heat of an Italian was my daily encounter with a tall, goofy, mustached guy in his tight sweater. He’d approach my best friend and I as we walked down the cobblestone main road back to our little rented apartment, our arms filled with whatever the outdoor market had to offer that day — veggies, tomatoes, bread, olives — and usually an English language newspaper. He’d suddenly appear out of a doorway, amble over ever so nonchalantly, and mutter the same cheesy pick-up line: “So, what are you reading in the newspaper today?” We’d smile politely and continue along the way.
The year was 1977, the town Taormina, Sicily. I never did melt in his hot embrace, but I did surrender to the austere beauty of the town perched on a craggy cliff high above the Mediterranean. We had heard “seaside” when we first heard Taormina mentioned, not realizing it would be hundreds of steps down to the seashore. But those steps we grew to love, and we walked down daily. It was a cold December when we arrived, but Sicily was still bathed in light. Weary from our European travels, we were delighted to make out a “For Rent” sign posted outside a house. We used hand gestures and choppy Italian to communicate with the grandma and grandpa who joyfully rented it out to us for the month, and our daily excursions to the market, Greek ruins, and the sea began. We spent Christmas there, witnessing the celebration on the piazza and the big Christmas parade. We sat on stone steps outside the kitchen of the only nightlife, a supper club, where we’d click our fingers to the jazz rhythm wafting out from within – we were students, and couldn’t afford the cover charge. And of course, we enjoyed our predictable hot Italian. I was certain I’d be back next year.
Forty years later, I’m finally going back to Sicily! And this time, I’m taking some of you with me! The trip down memory lane will be wrought with new discoveries this coming October when I’ll lead my third Vegano Italiano tour. Two years ago, a small group of us got a glimpse into the heart of Italy when we spent a week in the Cilento region of Southern Italy, an area that almost seemed frozen in time. Last year, a slightly larger group enjoyed the varied treasures of Puglia in the heel of Italy. And this year, we’ll set off for the island where I left my heart as a student. Forty years is a little longer than I expected, but I’m more excited than ever.
Vegano Italiano – a joint effort of Green Earth Travel and Tierno Tours – takes small groups on intimate excursions to wondrous places in Southern Italy that are largely hidden to the average tourist. The past two years, we visited the castle home of a living duke, a beach with everything — pristine sand, aquamarine waters, stunning caves – lacking only tourists, a cooking experience with the “mamas” that had even the guys laughing and having fun, and amazing meals in restaurants off the beaten track you’d probably not find in Small Planet or Frommer’s. Vegano Italiano takes us into what I think of as the real Italy, showing us the true cultural gems – the way Italians live and love and work.
We witnessed the passion of a 3rd generation baker as he lovingly described different kinds of ancient wheat and how they go into his bread; we became rapt churchgoers at the sermon of wines conducted by an impeccably dressed winemaker who got us all to believe in the truth of the vine. We were in Italy, and we knew it not for the sights, but the passion of its people, and how it expressed itself in the flavors of the food, wine, language, and culture.
Sicily will be another opportunity to go deep into the country’s heart. In fact, the further south you go in Italy, the deeper you go into the heart of Italy. The scenes in the classic film by Giuseppe Tornatore, Cinema Paradiso, depict this well –even as the protagonist becomes a cool and successful Roman producer, in the end, he is Sicilian to the core. So, you’ve been to Tuscany, Venice, Milan, maybe even Rome. Now let’s go to Italy.
We’ll of course start in Taormina, and then head off to visit Mt. Etna, a living volcano. On the island of Ortigia, we’ll have a vegan meal created by a Michelin-starred chef and learn how to bake Sicilian bread. We’ll visit the chocolate museum in Modica and learn about its history. We’ll hike through ancient ruins, visit the marketplace, relax over a café in a piazza. The highlight of each day will be the sumptuous meals we share together as we talk and laugh and form friendships. And did I mention the wine? Yes, there’s some of that to go around, too.
Vegano Italiano is a culinary tour – yes, it’s all about the food! In Southern Italy, it’s not a stretch to make sure that it’s vegan, because the majority of the diet has been plant-based for centuries. We’ll try regional dishes made with beans, grains, and vegetables that aren’t on typical Italian restaurant menus in the US, and I promise, it just won’t stop. Somewhere between all of the excursions and meals, I’ll sneak in a few cooking classes as well, and we’ll even have time to shop and cook together. I might even bring some special cheese to share!
This tour is open to only 22 people. Some of the spots are already taken by returning guests – for a few, this will be their third tour. The word I’ve used in the past to describe these trips is just “magical.” I’d love to share the magic with you this year. To learn more about it, you can contact Donna at Green Earth Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org) or see more details at https://vegantravelclub.com/tours/sicily/. This 7-night, 8-day trip runs from October 7 to 14, 2017. Yes, exactly 40 years from when I first went to Italy, I get to return – and I hope you can come with me!
Who knows – maybe we’ll see the guy with the cheesy pick-up line.