Spring has finally come to Berlin. While the Winter wasn’t especially cold (except for the month of March where we had days of sub-freezing temps the ponds and canals all froze over and it snowed more than in any preceding months) its been loooong. Cold, dark, gray and 40 F every day. It was snowing in Berlin on April 1st (Easter Sunday). Not an especially funny April Fool’s joke to Berliners burnt out by the long winter. And then magically, seemingly overnight, the crocuses and daffodils (called “Osterglocken” or Easter Bells in German) are in full bloom and the bushes are breaking out in tiny green leaves.
crocuses and Osterglocken in full effect
Germany observes daylight savings later in March and being at this northern latitude (52 degrees N) means the sun now sets at nearly 8 PM in early April. People are out in droves, sitting in the park on benches or lounging on the grass soaking up the sun.
At the Winterfeldmarkt street market
In the evenings after dinner the sidewalks are thronged with people strolling and the bike lanes are full again. Two dudes standing in a wide spot at an intersection drinking beers with a boombox blasting at their feet taking in the evening sidewalk show is not an uncommon occurrence. Rüdesheimer Platz was just planted with fresh flowers and I literally applauded the gardeners as I passed by on my morning run.
People smile! And ride their bikes festooned with flags blasting music from portable devices. Berlin is a place transformed by a little warmth and blue sky. Not coincidentally, the bulk of our guests have chosen the Spring and Summer months to visit us here. Our first round of friends arrived at the end of March, the week before the begin of our 2 week Easter vacation and just in time for 2 inches of snow and the dreaded “wintry mix”. But, the weather did give them a few breaks and they managed to hit some playgrounds, visit the zoo and squeeze in a few museums during their week here.
The following week we traveled with them to Sicily. We flew direct from Berlin to Palermo and then I had the particular joy of navigating our rental car from the airport to our AirBnB during rush hour traffic in a place where lanes are more suggestions and the use of the horn is preferred over a turn signal. But I did it! My marriage is still intact and no one died in the process. Our apartment in Palermo was majestic, freezing cold and incredibly loud (as in a literal jack hammer outside the window woke us every morning).
Yellow Sicilian tile kitchen of my dreams.
view from the apartment in Palermo (the jackhammers are not visible)
Palermo was a magnificent city of beautiful decay. For anyone who has read “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante, the scenery of Naples she describes reminded me very much of the gorgeous decrepitude of Palermo. We visited one of the street markets and ate fried chickpea patties called “panelle” and fried artichoke which was in season.
artichokes (carciofo) at the market
We roamed aimlessly through the city down narrow streets cramming into doorways when a car came around a corner. We stopped in awe of the magnificent cathedral with its Arab and Norman architectural mash up. Sat in a lovely park near some Roman ruins and took in a fantastic fountain which Italy just seems to specialize in.
in front of the Fontana Pretoria
That night we decided to see an opera at the Teatro Massimo which I was especially interested in having recently read this article in, where else, the New York Times. Seeing the inside of the theater alone was worth the entrance price. I sat with a teenage boy and his grandmother who gave me candy and at one point had me share her seat so that I could get a better view of the stage. It was really one of the highlights of the trip. We saw Fra Diavolo a French opera by the composer Daniel Auber.
In my box at the Teatro Massimo between Daniele and his grandmother.
The next day we escaped to the town of Cefalu, about an hour away from Palermo by train. It had a dramatic setting with huge rock hanging over the city and another Arab-Norman cathedral to boot. We hung out on the beach, the kids played in the waves and we hiked nearly to the top of that rock overlooking the city below. Our reward was the best gelato I’ve ever tasted at this place. Cefalu was probably my favorite place we visited in Sicily.
photo of Cefalu courtesy this blog: wishsicily
playing on the beach, Cefalu
Hiking la rocca (that big rock above the city) with friends! Thanks for visiting us guys!
We then headed for the opposite end of the island to the town of Siracusa (Syracuse). The Sicilian countryside was lush with green grass and blooming flowers. We stopped for lunch in the mountain-top village of Enna along the way.
This is technically the mountaintop village of Calascibetta which we had a great view of from neighboring Enna.
view of the mainland and Siracusa with UFO-looking clouds taken from Ortigia island
Siracusa is best known for its Greek theater and the beautiful winding old town of the adjacent Ortigia island complete with an ancient Greek temple to Apollo. So nice to see the antiquities I’d seen in Berlin museums but in their native habitat. Traveling with friends was super fun as the kids and adults were equally entertained. Also travel in Italy with children is great solely because of the food. Who doesn’t like to eat pizza, pasta and gelato every day? To that list I would add arancini (giant stuffed fried ball of rice), artichokes and cannoli. We also ate an amazing spread of vegetable antipasto in Siracusa that blew all our minds (especially as we hadn’t been eating that many vegetables up until then).
view of Ortigia island at sunset from the beach near our AirBnb in Siracusa
As a final farewell to Sicily we spent our last night in the foothills of Mt. Etna outside of Catania from where we flew back to Berlin. We drove close to the summit of Etna where the winds were gale force (as in you could barely stand upright) and it was freezing cold. After taking a few quick photos we staggered back to our car to take a more leisurely walk amongst the olive and pistachio groves farther down the mountain nearer our AirBnb.
Freezing cold and insanely windy Monti Silvestri on Etna
near Pedara, Italy (Etna foothills)
The air was fresh and clear and we had views to the sea below. To top it off, our AirBnb hostess cooked us an amazing Easter dinner meal of potato omelette, bruschetta, antipasto plate (salami, cheese, olives), ham panini sandwiches (this was just the first course!) followed by pork ragu lasagna and a dessert involving white chocolate, ricotta cheese and cherry. I’ve never eaten so well on vacation. Italy: go for the weather, stay for the food. We returned to a Berlin where it was suddenly 65 degrees and people were blasting boom boxes walking down the sidewalk while simultaneously smiling and now I really never want to leave!
The absolute best Cannoli in Siracusa from this awesome place
The rubber park at Winderfeldmarkt in Berlin on a sunny Saturday in April.