Gazing through the window of a beautiful villa, looking out onto the very blue Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sicilian north coast, I find myself thinking about my grandparents.
My mother's parents left Sicily for the United States a long time ago – my grandfather, 10 years old in 1898, was likely excited about a new adventure. My grandmother, who was only a year old on arrival at New York's Ellis Island, had no memories of Trabia, Sicily, from which both families had emigrated.
The sea views that Giuseppe Gattuccio and Salvtora D'Anna would have had from their respective ships, Werra and Vincenzo Florio, were surely from below decks. I, on the other hand, feel as if I'm sailing first-class, albeit on land, in their homeland. The attractions of a deluxe hotel are many, but a home away from home is definitely not one of them. That said, a house built smack into a rocky promontory with exceptional views, and shared with a 900-year-old (more or less) Norman watchtower, doesn't exactly resemble our Toronto apartment. But it does offer the opportunity to live as if one is home, yet away.
Our temporary Sicilian home is a holiday rental, 20 minutes by foot from the centre of the very pretty and popular seaside town of Cefalu, and only 42 kilometres from Trabia, my grandparents' hometown. My husband, David, and I plan to relax by the sea when not exploring the Greek, Roman, Phoenician, Elymian, Norman, Saracen and more recent Baroque sites in various history-jammed parts of this attraction-rich island. After a visit to see the drop-dead spectacular mosaics that fill the 12th-century cathedral at Monreale, just outside Palermo, we stop in drowsy Trabia to visit the cemetery (any remaining cousins would be so distant I chose to converse with whatever ancestors I could find here instead). In the park beside the cemetery, groups of elderly men play cards. The cemetery's custodian is obviously curious, but asks no questions as I see many names familiar in my childhood: Gattuccio, D'Anna, Rubino, Greco, Lima. My curiosity satisfied, we move on.
The coast around Cefalu is lovely, except for a built-up industrial patch near Palermo that certainly isn't the landscape my grandparents would have known. We pass by mountains, beaches, small fishing ports, salt flats, pastures, fields, farms and a few nature reserves. It's clear that Sicily's agricultural reputation as the “breadbasket of the Roman Empire” continues today.
Before we know it, we're back at Il Gabbiano (The Seagull), our stylish holiday rental nestled at the base of one of Cefalu's great sights, a spectacular pile of bedrock and boulders that makes the ingenuity of the home's design even more remarkable.
From the living room, we can dreamily watch the small marina on the other side of a picture-perfect bay, especially alluring at sunset. Typically, the major decision of the day is of a feline nature: where to sit to soak up the view. Should we flop on the patio at ground level (in sun or shade) or on one of two other levels reached by stairs that cut through and around the rock to more awe-inducing views. The scents of rosemary, lavender, basil and sage are mere grace notes wherever we choose to recline.
It's a perfect house for a couple, although we could picture a family with a couple of children being comfortable here too. The rocky sea access next to the house – which we didn't find particularly appealing – affords privacy, but we preferred the long sand beach in Cefalu and joined the predominantly Italian vacationers who rent beach umbrellas and lounge chairs for the day (€5 for both of us). You'll want the watery respite as, by the first of July, you'll be using the air conditioning to sleep. By August, the sand is bumper-to-bumper sun worshippers, lazing in the summer heat.
This visit to Sicily is my first since I was 20 (the memories are slim: a night in a dicey hotel in Catania that fit a backpacker's budget, a sublime visit to the Greek ruins of Agrigento, daily rations of gelato). Sicily is still a bit rough around the edges, with suburban sprawl, high unemployment and a casual approach to trash that bothers me wherever I encounter it.
But Sicily is also home to an unprecedented five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, sun, sea, varied and beautiful landscapes, including the frequently smoking volcano, Mount Etna. Of course, too, there's the cuisine: imaginative, richly varied and reflecting the grains, spices and cookery introduced by centuries of foreign invaders.
Most important, though, we've found Sicilians to have a wonderful spirit of generosity and love of place that's hard not to share. Because the Sicilian side of my family no longer lives here, I don't feel the same pull as I do in Tuscany, where my paternal relatives reside. But the entire experience is still seductive.
How could one resist? Especially when handed a keychain that reads “home.”