In the subject of travel, my father used to say, “You can’t go back. Avoid the places you loved when you were young, because they’ll have changed and you’ll be disappointed.” Occasionally my husband agrees, “That’s right, you can’t go back.”
IF YOU GO …
The budget airline Meridiana has direct flights from New York to Palermo, Sicily, but there are also flights from a number of European capitals to Palermo and Catania. We flew Alitalia from Rome to Palermo and rented a car at the airport.
WHERE TO STAY
>> La Plumeria Hotel, Corso Ruggero 185, Cefalu; 39-092-192-5897; laplumeriahotel.it; double rooms from $182.
>> Algila Ortigia Charme Hotel, Via Vittorio Veneto 93, Syracuse; 39-093-146-5186; algila.it; double rooms from $364.
>> Hotel des Etrangers, Passeggio Adorno, 10-12, Syracuse; 39-093-131-9100; desetrangers.com; double rooms from $244.
WHERE TO EAT
>> Nangalarruni, Via delle Confraternite, 5, Castelbuono; 39-092-162-1228; hostarianangalarruni.it; lunch for two with wine: $100.
>> Fratelli Burgio, Piazza Cesare Battisti 4, Syracuse; 39-093-160-069; fratelliburgio.com; lunch for two with wine: $80.
>> Sicilia in Tavola, Via Cavour 28, Syracuse; 39-392-461-0889; siciliaintavola.eu; dinner for two with wine: $90.
But does that mean that the cities and countries where we were happiest and most enchanted must forever be crossed off the list of dreamed-of destinations? Can’t some places remain unspoiled (or possibly even improve)? And, at the very least, isn’t it interesting to see how different a place looks to us at various points in our lives?
This spring, I decided to find the answers to some of these questions by revisiting Sicily, one of my favorite places on earth. I’d first been there in 1992, with my mother, my husband and our two sons (then ages 10 and 14), and written about watching Mount Etna erupt. I’d returned for six weeks in early 2002 to write a brief book that was partly about how an immersion in Sicilian history, with its appalling violence and inspiriting record of recovery and resilience, had provided some comfort in the recent aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now, almost a quarter-century after my first visit, I was returning with my husband, Howie; our younger son, Leon; our daughter-in-law, Jenny; and our two granddaughters, 9-year-old Emilia and 5-year-old Malena.
One advantage of returning to a region you know reasonably well — and, I suppose, of getting older — is that you lose the greedy compulsion to go everywhere and see everything. Were this a first visit, or were I alone with Howie, I couldn’t have resisted Palermo: the glorious mosaics in the cathedral of Monreale, the exuberant Baroque statuary of the Quattro Canti, the vibrant markets and delicious street food. But vivid memories of yanking my sons out of the way of speeding cars and rogue motorini convinced me that it might be more relaxing to begin our vacation in Cefalu, a seaside town about 40 minutes from Palermo, to which we flew from Rome.
I’d very much wanted to revisit the lovely inn and restaurant, Gangivecchio, in an ancient, aristocratic villa in the Madonie mountains above Cefalu, but I wasn’t sure how well the children would like the twisty two-hour drive.
Instead we took a much shorter (less than a half-hour) trip to the handsome town of Castelbuono, where we had an extraordinary lunch at Nangalarruni, a much-loved restaurant that specializes in dishes prepared with local mushrooms. The menu includes a marvelous sort of gratin made with potatoes and mushrooms, a medallion of pork encrusted with honey, pistachios and almonds, and pastas with a variety of delectable mushroom sauces.
Easily navigable and unpretentious, Castelbuono is also an art town, with 15th-century frescoes in the crypt of the church Matrice Vecchia; in the castle is a chapel encrusted with the giddily over-the-top Baroque decorations of sculptor Giacomo Serpotta.
But by the time we finished lunch, late on a Palm Sunday afternoon, the town seemed to have slipped into a peaceful postprandial sleep, and (in lieu of seeing its art treasures) we settled for buying honey and olive oil in a shop selling produce from a nearby organic cooperative.
If you like to cook, as we do, the great frustration of tourism is the inability to shop at local markets and make dinner. One thing that’s greatly changed travel over the past decade has been the advent of Airbnb and its online gallery of rentable apartments and houses. For us the fantasy was irresistible: the smell of olive oil and garlic, the family gathered around platters of steaming pasta and seafood bought that very day. We could be like Italians!
The reality was somewhat different. The amiable hosts who showed us to our rental cottage in Cefalu had forgotten to mention the high chance of burning out the clutch as we climbed the driveway, which rounded precipitous curves (without guardrails) along the edge of a cliff, nor did we know (from the online photos) that the only access to the bedrooms was via a semibroken ladder, a problem for two little granddaughters, my seven-months-pregnant daughter-in-law and, to be honest, me.
In Syracuse, where we went next, our elegant, spacious, comfortable apartment, also an Airbnb, had another sort of glitch: The electricity had been turned off in a country where, we well knew, it could be weeks for it to be turned back on. Perhaps my father should have said, “You can’t go back and rent an apartment.”
Ultimately, these issues hardly mattered. Our little family fled both Airbnbs and checked into local hotels, the gracious and comfortable La Plumeria in Cefalu, and in Syracuse, after our genuinely kindly, regretful landlady refunded our money (our Cefalu “host” refused), the elegant Algila. When the travelers who had come for Easter filled its rooms, we moved again to the old-fashioned seafront Hotel des Etrangers.
In Syracuse we stayed on Ortigia, whose architecture, cobbled streets, dramatic waterfront and especially the Piazza del Duomo were no less thrilling than I remembered. Nor was it any less fascinating to observe the layers of history so visible everywhere throughout the city.
On one side of the duomo, you can see the columns that upheld the structure during its original iteration as a Greek temple; consecrated as a Christian church in the seventh century, the Norman cathedral was rebuilt, in its current Baroque splendor, after the earthquake of 1693.
We spent much of our four days in Syracuse just walking around and eating. I would have liked to spend more time traveling up and down the Ionian Sea coast, and to the inland mountain towns of Ragusa and Modica. I’d hoped to take the family to the fish market in Catania, where once, eating pasta with sea urchin in a little trattoria at the edge of the pescheria, I watched the restaurant and the market stalls empty as everyone gathered to marvel at a gargantuan tuna that one of the fishermen had brought in.
I would have liked to have lunch at the coastal beauty spots Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, and to visit Noto, the wildly Baroque town where every cornice and windowsill appears to vie for the greatest complexity of decoration and where a balcony might be upheld by mermaids, griffins or galloping horses carved from stone. I would have liked to make a side trip to the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina, a restored Roman villa with famously spectacular mosaics depicting a chariot race, an epic hunting scene, a parade of women in what appear to be bikinis.
But of the three generations traveling together, each had their own reasons for wanting to relax, to take things slow and easy.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire trip was at Segesta, where there is an unfinished but nonetheless grand Doric temple and an amphitheater on a hill above the temple. The structures are themselves magnificent, but their beauty is greatly enhanced by the setting: a mostly deserted, out-of-the-way and wholly rural mountaintop from which you can see far across the bucolic countryside and, beyond it, the sea.
Of Sicily’s three major Greek temples — at Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta — Segesta was the one I wanted my family to see, the one I wanted to revisit myself.
When we reached Segesta, after getting lost in search of a nearby lunch spot, it was midafternoon. The busloads of tourists and Italian schoolchildren had mostly departed. We took the shuttle bus up to the amphitheater, where a strong wind was blowing and where — as their parents and grandparents sat on the stone benches encircling the theater and took in the view — the girls ran up and down the levels like graceful little mountain goats and treated the ancient theater as their personal terraced playground.
From the shuttle bus, going back downhill, you suddenly see the temple, solitary and majestic, exerting a kind of presence you can feel even from afar. The bus driver stopped so his passengers could take a picture, and I had the sense that even he — navigating this road, day after day — had never reached the point of taking the temple’s beauty for granted and was still awed by its magnificence.
The hike from the parking area to the temple is slightly steep and long. Leon and Howie and the girls ran up ahead, while I walked more slowly to keep my daughter-in-law company. By the time we reached the temple, the girls had made it their own. Malena, who never walks when she can run, was scrambling over the rocks that surrounded the structure, inspecting every inch of the hilly area around the monumental columns.
Emilia was having quite a different reaction. In the open space, with the temple behind her, she seemed to have become intoxicated by the gorgeousness of the place. With her arms outstretched she twirled and twirled around, the afternoon sunlight shining through her pale skirt and picking out the highlights in her long reddish-brown hair. Graceful and free, powered by the sheer joy of being a child, by the happiness of finding herself in such an astonishing spot, she turned and turned and turned.
Watching her, I thought: You can go back — and it can be better than seeing a place for the first time. The temple at Segesta had never before seemed to me so striking, so timeless, so precious. I thought: This — right here, right now — is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.
Francine Prose’s new novel, “Mister Monkey,” will be published in October.