Sicily – the name alone conjures up images of an exotic island, a mysterious and fascinating past. I have wanted to explore Italy for some time now since I had not been there for a long, long time, and when I was pondering which region of Italy to explore Sicily came to mind. I figured this island would offer a combination of fascinating history, rich culture, scenic beauty, and an opportunity for a wide variety of activities. One activity I definitely wanted to pursue was to combine my journey with language studies: my earlier language study trips to Havana and Cuernavaca, Mexico, not only got me closer to the Spanish language, but these on-site language learning experiences really allowed me to explore the culture from within.
So this time I was going to focus on learning Italian, and I was able to locate two language schools in Sicily that would both provide a totally different experience and a different way of exploring the island. Armed with no prior knowledge other than having read through an Italian grammar book, I was going to see how much of this beautiful language I would pick up in my three weeks in Sicily.
My first eight days were spent in Taormina, a gorgeous mountain-top town on the eastern side of Sicily, whose main distinguishing feature is an ancient Greco-Roman Theatre that is still in use today. The town itself has to be among the most picturesque destinations anywhere, with its beautiful buildings, narrow streets and passageways and stunning views of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean.
Shortly after my arrival I got to meet the people at the Babilonia Language School where I would be learning Italian for a week and exploring the culture of Sicily. My accommodation was in a lovely 13-room privately owned hotel that has been operated by the Sciglio family for more than 50 years.
Mr. and Mrs. Sciglio are in their mid-eighties and continue to work extremely hard, without even a thought of retirement, and their son Salvatore works with them. In an interview I learned more about the hotel’s history and the family’s involvement in this business. On the second day I joined my first guided excursion with the Babilonia language school: a guided hike to the ancient village of Castelmola which was followed by a tasting of Sicilian delicacies in a local bistro.
My first weekend in Sicily promised to be great: an excursion to the ancient town of Siracusa and an exploration of the gorgeous coastline just east of Taormina, including the town of Mazzaro and Isola Bella. The following Monday was my first day of language studies: first we went through the placement test, and then we had our first lesson which included some unique yet effective teaching methods. The next day was May 1, Italian Labour Day and a national holiday: a perfect opportunity to rent a car and drive into the countryside surrounding Mount Etna, Europe’s largest volcano, which by the way, had erupted the night before.
The next day it was back to school, and Alessandro, the director of the Babilonia language school, gave me a personal history lesson about Sicily and also explained the origins of that famous Sicilian institution, the Mafia, to me in detail. That evening I joined in a cooking class in a private home offered by the language school. I was going to see first-hand how a real multi-course Italian meal was prepared, using authentic, locally grown ingredients. And of course, I would have a chance to taste the finished delicacies afterwards and partake of a nice meal with other language students and the local Ferrari family.
My language studies the next day were followed by a visit to a local pottery painting artist, as Babilonia also offers pottery decoration courses, in addition to hiking, biking, golfing and diving programs. Perched on the rooftop patio of a Taormina hotel, with a perfect view of an ancient palazzo right next to Mount Etna, I learned about Sicilian pottery painting techniques. In the late afternoon I joined another excursion to hike up the southern flanks of Mount Etna. A visit to a winery and a nice dinner followed.
Then I had reached my last day in beautiful Taormina and after my final language lessons it was time to say goodbye to the folks at Babilonia, and to my co-students, whom I had gotten quite fond of. With the exception of the occasionally grey and drizzly weather, my experience in Taormina had been great: the language learning, the interesting excursions and activities and the interaction with my international co-students had been a really great experience. I was a bit sad to leave Taormina where I had gotten so comfortable.
But a new adventure was about to begin: I took the train to Milazzo on the northeastern side of Sicily, where the next day I would embark on a seven-day sailing trip through the beautiful Eolian Islands, offered by Laboratorio Linguistico, a Milazzo-based Italian language school. After meeting some of my six shipmates, who were really cool by the way, we were off on our sailboat, the 4 cabin “Solitaire II”, to our first destination: the island of Lipari, the largest of the Eolian Islands, and an extremely scenic place.
Our expert skipper Francesco, a licensed captain, also happened to be the co-owner of the language school, and one of our two resident language teachers on this sailing trip. After Lipari we continued our sailing trip to Salina, a neighbouring island, where three of us went on a driving tour to see local villages and also the house where “Il Postino” was filmed. An Italian lesson on the backyard patio of a bar was our first introduction to Laboratorio Lingustico’s language teaching program. Of course Francesco and Franco, our second teacher and co-owner of the school, conducted all conversations during the entire sailing trip in Italian only, which allowed us to be fully immersed in the language all the time. After we had nourished our brains, a Sicilian seafood feast capped off our second day on the boat.
On the third day we set sail for the island of Stromboli, which is still an active volcano. The town of Stromboli features such narrow streets that they are impassable to regular vehicles. No wonder the local “carabinieri” (Italian police officers) have to ride in golf carts.
After a somewhat turbulent late-night voyage from Stromboli to Panarea we arrived late and anchored in a bay off the island. On a gorgeous morning the next day we first had another language lesson – where else but on the outdoor patio of a bar in Panarea, surrounded by gorgeous sunshine and beautiful flowers. Panarea is an extremely photogenic destination and offered great opportunities for hobby photographers like me.
Our voyage continued to Lipari again where we would end an eventful day with a scrumptious outdoor feast on the main square. The next day three of us went on a driving tour of this beautiful island and from the south end we already saw our next destination: the island of Vulcano, which also features an active volcano. We anchored in a bay off this island, enjoyed some Italian lessons on the boat and after a delicious on-board dinner, our shipmates Franco, a gifted guitar player, and Agnieszka, a talented singer, entertained us with soulful melodies by candlelight on the back of the boat – magical moments that I will not forget for a long time.
Then our final day on the boat arrived: we hiked up to the “Gran Cratere”, the active crater of Vulcano. Yellow rocks and thick clouds of sulphur announced that the forces of geology were indeed active right underneath our feet. And the view from the top over the six other Eolian Islands was breathtaking. After another Italian lesson on an outdoor patio overlooking the Mediterranean we had to say goodbye to the Eolian Islands and start to head back to Milazzo.
Just as I thought our 7 day sailing trip would come to an anticlimactic end, one of my shipmates announced “DOLPHINS!!!”, and indeed four of these playful sea creatures were accompanying our sailboat, jumping in and out of the water, and having fun with us. The excitement continued when we ended up catching three tunas on a fishing line we had been dragging behind our boat. The following decapitation and evisceration scene though was a bit hard on my tender vegetarian soul…
So we had reached land, and to celebrate the conclusion of a wonderful sailing trip and one of my shipmates’ birthdays we enjoyed another big Sicilian feast in Capo di Milazzo. The next day, we had a chance to relax a bit in our five-bedroom apartment conveniently located above the Laboratorio Linguistico Language School and do simple things like laundry and sit on the balcony. Franco, our language teacher took us on a guided walk of Milazzo which features a huge fortification that dates back more than 1000 years.
After saying goodbye to my roommate Claudia I spent my final Sunday in Sicily in the picturesque medieval town of Cefalu, about a two-hour train ride from Milazzo. That city’s medieval core and huge Norman cathedral together with the ruins of an ancient castle on top of the rock that towers over the town left me with many vibrant treasured memories. Now I only had two full days left in Sicily.
Following a tour of the Milazzo headquarters of Laboratorio Linguistico I went on a country excursion into the surrounding Nebrodi Mountains with my two Italian teachers Francesco and Franco. We visited the Rocks of Agrimusco, a cluster of mysterious-looking rocks on a high plateau with a gorgeous view of Mount Etna. Then we headed into the hilltop town of Montalbano Elicona, an authentic small Sicilian town, completely untouched by tourism. I finally had a chance to snap some pictures of the locals who love to congregate next to the church and discuss important issues of the day.
My final day in Sicily had arrived – I had to say goodbye to the great team at Laboratorio Linguistico and board the bus towards Messina and from there to Catania from where I would catch a plane in the early morning the next day. After my arrival in the late afternoon I had a chance to briefly explore this city, the second-largest city in Sicily, and get ready for my flight home.
On this trip I found out that Sicily is gorgeous, and a visit in the late spring around April / May is perfect since everything is in full bloom and the hoards of tourists do not really arrive until June, July and August. Sicily has remained amazingly authentic and is fortunately free of many of the signs of mass tourism that mar other Mediterranean coastlines.
Taormina and the Eolian Islands are all stunning destinations, but the Sicilian hinterland in itself holds many hidden treasures. The history, architecture, culture and scenic beauty are astounding. And seafood lovers will definitely fall in love with this destination.
I myself really enjoyed the language learning experience at Babilonia and Laboratorio Linguistico – as a matter of fact, my three weeks in Italy took me all the way up to Intermediate level and when I came back I was quite capable of communicating fairly competently in this new language.
The people were great: the staff at both language schools was very helpful and knowledgeable, and the interaction with my co-students from all different countries was a real treat. Our crew on the sailboat in particular came together really nicely and some close personal bonds had developed after this experience.
Without a doubt, language study travel is one of the best forms of travel in my opinion, giving you the chance to learn, to expand your mind, and to really discover the local culture. And without a doubt I’ll be back in Sicily – this fascinating island has so much more to explore.
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions (www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences & interesting life journeys, interviews with travellers and travel experts, cross-cultural issues, and many other features.