In early morning from Boston via Dublin, we arrive at Gatwick Airport, London’s smaller terminal, a former aerodrome. Sleep-deprived, we wander around looking for a good breakfast, stumble upon a Pret À Manger, and consumer steel cut oatmeal, sandwiches, and fruit. Because we have seven hours to kill, we seek out a good coffee spot, passing the ubiquitous Starbucks, and finding a Lebanese café. The coffee is excellent, and we drag our wheelies down to the British Air desk to check our bags for the early evening flight to Catania.
The British Air agent directing traffic to various check in desks sends us to the shorter queue. She has unexpected good news for us: We’ve been bumped from economy class to first, which means we can park ourselves in” a posh lounge” (her words) with coffee, tea, wine, salad bar, sandwiches, and comfortable chairs and sofas to doze on as we cope with jet lag. There’s even a private washroom area where you can go into your very own bathroom, complete with fluffy white towels, soap, shower, and commode. We’ve been on the road (or in the air or airport) Boston for 15 hours with little sleep, so the British Air lounge is a treat and a lifesaver. Thirty-six hours in the same clothes goes much better with a little wash-up, and this is definitely several notches above the airport restrooms. We take turns falling asleep on the plush armchairs. Around 4 PM, the lounge grows noisy with the clatter of glasses, cutlery, and people conversing boisterously. I open my eyes and make a face.
“Look around,” my husband says, “People are having cocktails.” Almost every women over forty is holding a large stemmed glass of white wine. I wander past the coffee and tea station and around the corner, where the lounge continues in a space the same size at the first room. Along a mirrored wall is a full bar, stocked with spirits of every kind, most of them the expensive ones: Sky Vodka, Bombay Gin in its ice-blue bottle, Macallan and Oban single malt whisky, Johnny Walker red and Johnny Walker black. Sparkling cocktail glasses of all shapes and sizes, and red and white wine glasses line the shelves. A solitary man helps himself to some brown liquor, pouring it carefully into an ice-filled tumbler. I stroll back to the tea and coffee section and make myself a cup of tea.
We leave the posh lounge and make our way to the gate for our flight to Catania. People are queuing up. I notice two women with lovely silver hair sitting in the waiting area and chatting like longtime friends. When we line up, one of them notices my backpack, and the green tag our Oxford, UK group has issued. Introductions are made, and we meet Primrose from London and Lindy from Cambridge, who themselves have only just met in the waiting area. This is the recommended flight for our walking tour group. I scan the line for more of those green luggage tags.
The plane is small but the ride is smooth, and the dinner in first class is unexpectedly tasty. What we don’t realize is that almost everyone else on our “recommended flight” to Sicily will be ravenous by the time we land—they’re having only soft drinks or tea or coffee, not even a biscuit or a handful of peanuts.
We move quickly through Italian customs and congregate outside the single luggage carousel. We find our bags in short order and turn 180 degrees to see our tour leader and manager, with their official green shirts, waiting with a few people, all of whom have the familiar green tags on their luggage. Stephen, our tour leader, is a wiry, tan guy with a buzz cut. He’s speaking Italian one moment, and English the next, His accent is hard to pin down. It sounds like an admixture of English German and Italian. As we soon learn, he’s from the States–Oregon, to be precise–but hasn’t lived there for years. He advises us that once all the group is present, we will be whisked off to the hotel in Enna, about 45 minutes drive away, where we will have dinner straightaway. I look at my husband—signaling to him, oh, would that we had not consumed that full meal on the plane! All I can think about is sleep. Except for our catnaps here and there, we’ve been awake for 36 hours.
Introductions are made, there are handshakes and smiles, and most of us climb into the official tour van, while three others ride in the Skoda station wagon with Martina, tour manager and the hotel, food and wine expert. I nod off about a dozen times during the 45 minute drive. I keep opening my eyes to see mountains and fields, but I’m struggling to stay awake. I hear the others conversing in their perfect British accents.
“Dinner as soon as we arrive, in a very nice restaurant in the hotel— but not run by the hotel,” Stephen, our tour leader (I’m starting to think of him as our handler) announces. I look at my husband. “I’m not hungry,” I whisper. I, who am almost always hungry, just want to go to sleep.
“We can’t not have dinner,” he says. “It would be rude. Besides, we’re getting the walking agenda for tomorrow.”
The Grand Hotel of Sicily, right on the central square of the provincial capital of Enna, is nothing like the Grand Hotel Budapest. It’s a smallish hotel, with a few potted palms across from a high reception desk, a tiny lift to the upper floors and a modest breakfast room off the lobby. We leave our luggage in the van—Martina and Stephen will tend to that for us—and walk downstairs to a very chic restaurant housed on the lower level of the hotel. I’m afraid that if I drink a glass of wine I will fall asleep in my plate, but I accept a glass of white, and listen to Martina describe the rest of the menu. “Tonight we will have a very fishy dinner,” she says, smiling broadly. We begin with three kinds of fish carpaccio. The swordfish is my favorite. The primi, pasta with local wild fennel, tomatoes, and tiny shrimp; the secondi, brochettes of swordfish and calamari. Then, salad. Then local fruits—pears, cherries, apricots and something I’d never eaten before, loquats. I don’t feel hungry, but I eat. And eat and eat. It’s all delicious.
Sated, we stand up, say our buonanottes, and push in our chairs.
“Bags packed and outside your doors by 7:45 tomorrow morning,” Stephen announces. We will walk around Enna briefly, then the serious trek begins. We’ll descend into a valley and walk several miles along a drove road on the way to our next hotel, an old villa down the mountain outside the city of Gangi, reputed to be the loveliest in all of Sicily.
Bellies full, eyes already half closed, we climb the stairs to our room. On the small balcony we notice an exercise bike, and for some reason, this strikes us as extremely funny. We wash faces and brush teeth, set the mobile phone’s alarm for 6:45, and within minutes fall asleep.
Our hiking boots sit lined up in the corner, next to the brand new trekking poles. We have no idea how much our hearts, our calves, our quadriceps, our feet and our general balance will be challenged on the morrow, when we attempt to navigate the steep inclines and descents of the road from Enna to the postcard-perfect village of Gangi.