For over a year I have been planning a trip to historical Sicily, in the south of Italy. I imagined my time there would be spent enjoying dinner parties and wine tours. I never thought, for a moment, I would get caught up in the chaos of a worldwide pandemic!
My Sicilian tour of a lifetime began with about twenty other travelers in the historic city of Catania. We feasted over local fresh veggies and seafood, drank wine, chatted, and got acquainted while discussing our upcoming series of day trips.
My son Jason arrived in the middle of that dinner after his long train ride from Rome to Catania. We hadn’t seen each other in many months since he had been traveling in Asia, and flew in from Bali, Indonesia. We hugged and were excited and were looking forward to a week of touring together. I saved a spot for him at our family-style dinner.
The New York City winter had been brutally cold, but I endured it, knowing that in March I would be landing in Rome, en-route to my dream of the sunny Mediterranean. I dreamed of eating freshly filled cannolis, authentic pizza, and fresh gelato. I pictured myself walking small, winding, cobblestone streets and exploring little seaside towns and surrounding mountain villages. I looked forward to wine tastings and sunset views of the active volcano, Mt. Etna.
After arriving in Rome and before going on to Catania, I felt fortunate that a friend, Alberto, showed me the sights: the “Trevi” Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, and the main piazzas. We shared gelato, pizza and pasta and he called me “brave” for coming to Italy at this time (but still claimed it was safe to do so).
At our opening dinner in Sicily, our tour organizer, Mario, kept glancing at his phone. Then he stood up and made the announcement. The Prime Minister had decided that Italy was now on nation-wide lockdown – starting immediately! No tours were to be allowed. Everyone must stay at home and were only allowed to go out to get food. Mario announced that he was booking a flight out the next day to his home in London – while he still could. He advised us all to get out of here as quickly as possible. Jaws dropped. Eyes widened. Everything was supposed to be beginning, not ending! In the ironically, and aptly named “Be Quiet” Restaurant, everyone stopped talking and started looking at their phones to book flights out.
LOCKED DOWN IN ITALY? Jason and I were stunned, shocked, and scared! (The Italian government had told us that the south was safe – which is why our tours weren’t canceled – otherwise we wouldn’t have come). It was the beginning of the end of our trip, and the start of a whole new adventure of making it home safely.
Luckily, on the previous day, I had joined a guided day trip, to the nearby Sicilian mountain village of “Militello.” The “Wishing Sicily” cultural tour company drove us through a dramatic landscape, filled with orange groves. A highlight for me was being given a bag of oranges by a local woman who had noticed me photographing her orange tree. These were the most delicious oranges I have ever tasted!
In Militello we visited half a dozen churches. All were beautiful, but the one that stood out was part of the Museum of Sacred Art (“Museo D’Arte Sacra San Nicolo”). We were allowed to photograph the rare treasures and religious artifacts housed in the basement. After that we drank local wines and dined on sandwiches, pastries and cookies in a nearby courtyard. I was hoping to visit other little historic villages in the area, as I had seen many of them from the “Trenitalia” train, between Rome and Catania.
At this point, restaurants were still allowed to be open until 6pm, so Jason and I figured we could still enjoy good meals, if we stayed a bit longer. We were frankly scared to leave, with fears we could get sick. We decided not to make exit plans quite yet, since we were exhausted, and had our accommodation pre-paid for the next five nights.
The next day we woke up to a city in lockdown, complete with a curfew. One could only go out if the reason was to buy food. Restaurants were still allowed to open until 6pm. There were very few people outside, and all shops were closed, except for those selling food, and pharmacies. We went to “Prestipino’s,” a cafe at the historic square, “Piazza del Duomo,” where we ordered freshly squeezed orange juice to boost our immune systems.
Another cafe open was called “Cafe del Duomo Pasticceria,” where we enjoyed cannoli’s, double espressos, and scoops of hazelnut gelato. Jason and I took pictures and had fun with the friendly Sicilian servers, laughing together as we tried communicating.
During the first partial day of lockdown, we walked through the city’s now empty streets, admiring the architecture, with a goal to see as much as we could. One of our favorite memories that day was sitting outside at a food stall and gas station, drinking freshly squeezed blood orange juice with the smiling locals. We ordered three cups of juice each, since we figured we needed all the vitamin C we could get to stay healthy. Jason looked in at a few barbershops as he specializes in haircut videos around the world on his “Travel & Pamper” YouTube travel channel. Finally it was time to head back to the main square to the cafe Prestipino, where we couldn’t get enough of the freshest pastries and good local coffee.
Before heading back ahead of the curfew, I enjoyed visiting a nearby cathedral. I also posed for a picture with a beautiful statue of an elephant. We noticed the streets were becoming even emptier as we walked back to our apartment building. That night, it was announced that more restrictions were in place – starting tomorrow not even restaurants would be open. Anyone outside needed to have a document stating his or her purpose. One could only go out for food shopping and then must return directly home. Visiting museums and churches were not allowed – basically nothing was allowed.
We then decided to make some live videos and post them onto the “ Jason Rupp” YouTube channel to show what life is like in lockdown.
We had to cook for ourselves, but we found bakeries still open with freshly made bread and pastries. We loved eating pistachio cream-filled breaded balls, called “Arancini.” They are a staple of Sicilian cuisine, rice-coated snacks with a delicious pistachio filling.
On the third day of lockdown snack shops were suddenly closed and only produce shops continued to stay open. But small grocery shops were not hard to find. Our nearby outings led us to fresh strawberries, oranges, apricots and figs, as well as high quality vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and zucchini. We were pleased to find a family-run, hand-made pasta shop and cherished our carefully chosen ravioli. Cooking was easy, since our apartment had a kitchen. We enjoyed the meals we made with the carefully chosen, healthy ingredients.
We also had favorite walks while looking for food. One led us to discover an artsy area, hidden amongst alleyways, called “San Berillo Catania Segreto,” a perfect place for picture taking. We also enjoyed the square called “Piazza Vincenzo Bellini Theatre,” near our apartment.
We had one police encounter. We were walking near the train station when the police stopped us. They gave us papers to fill out, stating where we were going, and they kept a copy. We were then required to carry these papers, along with our passports, whenever we were outside.
Then it was announced that U.S.A. would be closing its doors to all Europe!
And we wondered what we would do since we were now on our own.
WOULD WE BE ABLE TO GET BACK?
A big surprise was getting a message from ABC-TV’s Nightline that they wanted to interview Jason about both of us being “stuck in lockdown in Italy” – about how he and his mother would get back home. The producers found us due to the “live” YouTube video footage we posted from our walks. I helped set up Jason’s television interviews with him in the kitchen of our historic Catania apartment.
The Nightline segments consisted of a series of three separate interviews. Each included videos of our own material edited in. We started hearing from worried friends all over the world who had seen our riveting story.
After five nights our apartment rental time ran out. We inquired about staying longer, but the owner thought it was best we left. He didn’t want to be responsible for lingering foreigners. Also that day the World Health Organization declared a Worldwide Pandemic. We acquiesced. This was the time to be home, not traveling.
We confirmed that U.S. citizens were allowed to leave Italy, and booked a plane ticket to leave that same day. Our flight arrangements out of Catania required a night in Rome and a direct flight from Rome to JFK International Airport in New York City. The Nightline ABC-TV interviews concluded with how we got back home to New York City.
During our overnight in Rome we stayed near the airport, because we wanted to avoid people and had an early flight. Everyone there wore masks. The hotel lobby was empty and plexi-glass kept us far apart from staff. All shops in the airport were closed. Terminal walkways were nearly empty as we arrived for boarding. There were no lines anywhere.
Once we arrived home, we were quarantined for two weeks, and did not even go outside. After the two weeks, we stayed in quarantine for months longer. We were scared to meet with anyone. It was odd to have come from one lockdown in Europe to another in New York.
The closest we can get to Italy now is watching webinars. We have seen almost every region, hosted by the Italian Tourism board, thanks to moderator “Salvatore Basile” (in the USA), and many Italian experts. I am eager to return and these webinars really tease the appetite.
We will return – when possible. We are sad for the many lives that have been lost due to this pandemic crisis. We urge everyone to stay safe. We look forward to when we will be able to travel again.
Jason and Carla have created the “Jason Rupp” YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/BangkapiBoy.