This is the story of how a small town tucked away in the hills of Eastern Sicily breathed new life into my winter doldrums. After six weeks of restricted movement due to Covid-19, and two weeks of cold, dreary rain, I was itching to go exploring. As if mother nature knew that restrictions had been lifted just enough to travel within our region, she granted a reprieve from the Sicilian winter rainy season.
Needing a change of scenery but trying to avoid crowded areas, I decided to take advantage of the sunshine and venture out into the hills below Mount Etna. I searched on my google maps for historic sites near me and somehow stumbled across a listing for street murals in the small town of Graniti. Upon further investigation, I saw that there were a couple of churches, some scattered cafes and a piazza. I was sold.
Just north of the bustling metropolis of Catania and the towering volcano that is Mount Etna, before you reach the seaside terraces of Taormina, there’s an exit off the autostrada that heads west into the hills of the Alcantara River Gorge. If you take the time to wind your way through the valley and up to the town of Graniti, you will discover a place that, although small in size, has all the personality and charm that you could ever ask for in a Sicilian village.
With a couple of friends in tow, I arrived in Graniti around 10:00 in the morning. I had chosen one of the churches as my destination, as it appeared to be in the center of town and was near the street mural location. Also, I’ve found that there is usually parking near churches. What could go wrong, right?
We drove into town and passed through the single round-about, which also seemed to double as a gathering place. Complete with a charming fountain as a centerpiece and lined with shops, cafes, and a small piazza, the square was alive with people going about their morning routines and meeting in small groups to discuss the business of the day.
We quickly discovered that we were quite conspicuous, as this town was even smaller than it had looked on the map. We caught quite a few stares and inquisitive looks, but nevertheless I was intent on reaching my destination. I obeyed google maps and continued deeper into the village. As I made each turn, the streets became more and more narrow, and it felt like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where each door gets smaller and smaller. My small SUV suddenly felt like a Mac truck. At this point, going back seemed more complicated than moving forward, so we pulled in the side mirrors and carried on.
One more turn and we found the church. Unfortunately there was no parking here in the heart of town, which now felt like we had wandered into a medieval maze of cobblestoned streets and high stone walls. Upon passing the church we had a choice to make, turn onto another narrow street that sloped down at a steep angle and had another sharp turn at the bottom, or keep moving forward towards some parked cars we saw up ahead. So onward we went, fingers crossed for an open parking spot.
I’m sure you can guess by now that we were unsuccessful in this quest, and even worse, now found ourselves in the tiniest parking area on the face of the planet, flanked on one side by three cars lined up at a 45 degree angle, and a motorcycle and small car parallel parked against the wall on the other. I am usually a pretty fearless driver and confident in my maneuvering capabilities, but I have to admit this was my Waterloo.
All three of us got out of the car. We were trying to figure out our next move, laughing, and debating whether I was capable of backing the car down a narrow alley with the side mirrors pulled in, when suddenly our savior arrived. A man came out of one of the buildings, assessed our situation, looked at me, shook his finger in the most Italian way possible, and simply said “No”. A questioning look from me prompted him to say, "You must go back".
He must have seen the look of apprehension on my face, because he motioned to indicate that he would back the car up for me. I smiled and handed him my keys. In my head I was thinking, this guy is either going to steal my car or be my hero, but I didn’t see any other option. Turns out he was my hero, and we had a nice conversation about how he had moved to Sicily from Venezuela 40 years earlier and had been here ever since. He also told us we could make it down the steep street by the church and that it was the only way out of town. Yes, you heard me right, one way out of town, and one way back in.
So we thanked our new friend and hero, and got back in the car. Down the narrow street, out of town to the main road in the valley, and back up the other side to the pretty piazza with the fountain. Three American girls driving through the round-about for the second time in less than an hour, where I’m sure we became part of the story of the day. Turned out there was parking just off the piazza, so we found a spot, waved at the onlookers, fueled up with cappuccino and Italian pastries, and set off to find some street art.
Our walking tour through Graniti turned out to be much more enjoyable, if not quite as exciting, as our drive. This little village is full of old world charm that exemplifies the beauty of quiet Italian life. Cobbled streets with stone archways, pastel colored houses with deep orange terra cotta roof tiles, balconies overflowing with potted plants, and laundry blowing in the breeze gives a feeling that you've stepped back in time.
While this quaint hillside town seems to embrace the traditional way of life, there is more to Graniti than what you might think at first glance. The juxtaposition of art murals scattered throughout the town gives a surprising modern artistic perspective, without taking away from the town’s historic beauty. I’ll let the art speak for itself here.
After completing our art walk, we discovered another beautiful church, Chiesa San Sebastiano. We found ourselves at the edge of town, with sweeping views of the surrounding valley. But our adventure didn’t end here! I had read about a shop called Il Mercato - Fud del Sud, that sells locally made Sicilian food products. A short battle with google maps, and a conversations with some friendly local men, left us more confused than ever. After reading back over one of the reviews on TripAdvisor, I noticed that the shop is also referred to with the name Tasting Sicily. Our map app was much happier with this, and we were able to find it easily (and discovered that we had previously walked past it at least twice).
I’m still not sure if this shop intends for the general public to just pop in and buy products, as it seemed more like a place where they package the products and box them up for shipping (see their website link here). I’m getting used to being the only non-Italian around, as well as the surprise by shop owners when they hear my VERY broken Italian, courtesy of google translate. However, there was an incredibly sweet woman who was there, and she welcomed us in with open arms and was happy to sell us anything we wanted. With bags full of blood orange marmalade, apricot lavender jam, tomato cream, and walnut pesto sauce, we felt we had completed our mission, and made our mark on this sleepy little piece of Sicilian paradise.
A quick stop at an adorable bakery on our way back to the car left our tummies happy and our hearts full. By the way, if you ever make it here and find this bakery, look for a tray with little bites of heaven that look like frosted donut holes. There is something soft and lemony about them that absolutely earned a return trip.
This was the perfect way to break out of my winter funk, and remind me that the simplest things in life can give the best rewards! A day that I will not soon forget, my trip to Graniti is proof that sometimes the best adventures are those that don’t go according to plan.
Thanks for reading about my latest Sicilian adventure! If you enjoyed this, or want to recommend other places for me to visit in Sicily, please drop a comment below!
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