December 18, 2017

Sciacca, Italy- The Spa Day from Hell

Sciacca's Bath house

During our six week backpacking trip, my sister and I made it a point to stop in Sicily. When we were younger, our parents had taken us to Italy’s mainland to meet my mother’s family, but we were unable to venture down south, which is where my father’s family is from. Therefore, after visiting Palermo, we made it a point to spend a few days in the small town of Sciacca, where our great grandparents had lived. Amazingly, both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather lived in this small town, never met, immigrated to Massachusetts at different times, and ended up meeting and falling in love in Boston. With a bizarre love story like that, how can you not believe in fate? Anyway, Jenelle and I decided it was time to reconnect with our Sicilian roots, and that’s just what we did.

We had anticipated Sciacca being a small town and community, and with few sightseeing opportunities available we decided to get creative with our time. My sister settled on the idea of going to an old Roman Bath that was still in use. During the Ancient times, Romans would come to southern Italy to relax and bathe in the healing waters, and it is a tradition that the locals continue to uphold today. We left our hotel under the impression that we were going to swim/sit in a cave-like mud bath, based on the pictures we found online; however, what we paid for would be considered a form of punishment in some countries.

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Jenelle and I walked into the Bath, and quickly found that no one spoke any English. We stupidly had not taken along a phrase book to help guide the conversation, and neither of us knew a word of Italian. After I spent a half an hour trying to do charades so that the woman understood that we simply wanted mud rubbed onto our bodies, another woman took us into a consultation room. She jabbered away in Italian, as Jenelle and I nervously exchanged glances. She proceeded to take our blood pressures, at which point my sister looked at her and said, “Is this dangerouso?” For all the readers out there, a piece of advice: this is not Italian, and if you say it native italians will merely laugh at you, just as this lady laughed at my sister.

After our blood pressure was taken, the woman happily scribbled onto our charts. My sister, looking like someone was about to perform surgery on her, proceeded to ask if she was okay blood pressure-wise. The woman understood, and gave her a thumbs-up. I decided to ask the same question for myself, and the woman literally looked at me, smiled, and then made a so-so sign with her hand. Um, excuse me? What does that mean? Am I about to get roasted and go into cardiac arrest? With the woman happily ignoring my clear paranoia, and Jenelle and I wondering what the hell we just paid money for, we were led through a separate set of doors.

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Now, I’m all for trying things, obviously or I wouldn’t have found myself in this wonderful institution; however, the long hallway reminded me of an insane asylum and although I don’t watch many horror films, I started to feel like I was in one. As soon as we walked through the doors a pungent odor smacked my senses into overdrive. It was a grotesque mix of rotten egg and mold, that instantly made me want to plug my nose. The woman directed Jenelle towards one room and forced me to go into another. Now I know I thought it was going to be a spa treatment in a somewhat clinical setting but the room consisted of a shower, tub, and bed, and with the asylum décor of bare walls and white linens, it made it difficult to relax. I stripped down to my bathing suit, and laid on the bed. As I’m laying there, trying to remain calm, I hear my sister yelling down the hall. I instantly jump up and put my ear to the wall straining to hear what is going on. Thankfully by the sounds of it, she doesn’t seem to be dying, just in a little bit of pain. As I stride towards the hall to go check on her, my room door swings open, and a woman is standing there with a metal barrel on wheels. She starts motioning me back towards the bed, and although I was insistent about going to see my sister, this woman blocked my progress and with her arms flailing and her yelling in Italian it was way more intimidating and domineering than my urge to check on my sister.

I sat there as she flipped the cement-looking mud around in the barrel, and then watched as she plopped a large blob onto my table. I was definitely not prepared for what came next. She reached into the barrel, took another blob of mud, and then slapped it onto my back. To say it was hot would be an understatement, it literally felt like lava on my bare back, and I was thoroughly convinced I would have a burn to prove it. She chuckled as she spread the mixture all over my back, and I just started yelling ‘Muy Caliente, Muy Caliente!’ Yes, I am aware that this is the phrase for ‘very hot’ in Spanish, not Italian, but when your skin is being torched, you just hope they understand, and for the love of God, would stop. Unfortunately, my lady was having too much fun watching me squirm, and proceeded to put blobs onto my feet, my kneecaps, my stomach, and arms, and then pushed me down into the initial blob she had put on the table. I laid there as the mud started to harden and she wrapped me in three different types of heating blankets.

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Twenty five minutes later, I lay cocooned in this heat wrap, no longer feeling my body, just the weight of the cement. I could feel the sweat trickling all the way from my hairline to my toes. Within that half hour I had to of sweat out at least five pounds. By the time the lady came back to me, I felt like I was about to pass out. She unwound me, and then helped me into the shower, which pelted me with jets that shot Sulfer water. So now I not only felt tarred and dehydrated, but I smelled like rotten ass too. She scrubbed the mud off of me, and then helped me into the bath. I had hoped the bath would be better than everything else I had endured, but that was a little optimistic. Once again it was sulfur water, so instead of feeling calm and refreshed, I felt irritable, lightheaded, and nauseous. Once she drained the bath, the woman wrapped me in more heating towels and said I was finished.

I know tons of people that love having spa days, I’m one of them, but the Italians have a skewed sense of what is considered ‘relaxing’. After I gathered myself together and stumbled down the hall, the funniest part of this experience was my sister’s expression when she opened the door. With sweat marks down her neck, her bangs doing a major cowlick to the right, her mascara making massive rings under her eyes, and her looking at me all doe-eyed, I couldn’t help but laugh. All she said to me was, ‘What the hell just happened?’ and my response: ‘No idea.’ Although we were starving and parched, we refused to sit in a café smelling and looking the way we did. So instead we sprinted home so that we could shower. It literally took us a week to get the stench out of our clothes, and I don’t think either of us will ever recover from that day in Sciacca, but it’s definitely an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Perugia, Italy- Every Chocoholics Dream

City of Perugia

Have you ever wished for a day solely revolved around eating chocolate? Or that all your favorite sweets could be found in one place? Well you can stop dreaming, because it’s actually a reality in the Umbria region of Italy. Every October, the Eurochocolate festival is held in the small town of Perugia, attracting thousands of tourists and chocolate lovers for an entire week (this past year it was from the 14th-23rd).

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Fortunately, I had been living in Gaeta, Italy when a friend had first mentioned it. I had been to several different types of food festivals to date, but had never heard of one consisting mainly of chocolate. Once I started doing some research, I realized it was an Italian tradition that I just couldn’t pass up. So, I decided to pack my little red carry-on and make a two week trip out of travelling northern Italy, starting with Perugia.

After a four and a half hour train ride of propping myself between the bathroom and the exit, with people climbing over me to board the train, I had finally made it to the chocolate city. That was also the first and last time I was too frugal to reserve a seat on a train. After I left the station, I hopped onto a bus, which took me up the hill, and dropped me right into the center of the festival. Between the stunning countryside, beautiful architecture, and hilly landscape Perugia embodies quintessential Tuscany.

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Luckily, I was able to book a hostel down the street from San Lorenzo Cathedral, which stands next to the Fontana Maggiore, and is virtually at one end of the festival. With so many visitors bombarding the city at once, I was lucky to have found a room at all. If this festival is of interest, I highly recommend booking a room far enough in advance to avoid difficulty later.

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With hundreds of tents lining the streets promoting both local and regional chocolate producers, I initially felt a bit overwhelmed. Luckily, I had met some girls staying at the same hostel as me and we decided to wander the festival together. We had been told to go buy an exclusive pass that would enable us to purchase several different types of chocolate at a discounted price. In my honest opinion, I wouldn’t waste your time or money on this ‘deal’, unless you planned on buying in bulk. Many stands hand out free samples, and for the most part you can buy pieces of chocolate along the way for very cheap. I’m not one that can consume an extreme amount of sweets in a short period of time, so it was great to buy a piece here and there for less than a euro, and snack until I reached another tent of interest.

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In addition to the outdoor sampling tents, there is also an education section dedicated to the history of chocolate and the cocoa bean located underneath the City Hall building. Here I learned about the production of cocoa in third world nations, and how it is picked, traded, and cultivated into chocolate. With demonstrations and exhibitions on cocoa beans from all over the world, it was interesting to learn about the process and the nutritional benefits. I was even allowed to try a cocoa bean from Brazil, but I would recommend my readers to break off the shell first because I stupidly didn’t, and man was it bitter.

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As you walk through the underground maze, you will also find several booths selling an array of breads, cheeses, oils, meats, and liquors. Although this particular section of the festival is small and does not revolve around chocolate, it acts as a nice break from all the sweets.

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Between the chocolate demonstrations, classes, and competitions this festival exerts a highly energetic environment, perfect for any age group.

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At different tents you can find every kind of white, dark, and milk chocolate. They offer fudge, chocolate dipped cookies, truffles, flavored fudge sticks, cakes, hot chocolate (flavored or spiked), and they even sell exotic chocolate flavors like lemoncello and Sambuca. Anything chocolate you can think of, they have it.

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They even go as far as selling chocolate pizzas, chocolate flavored grappa, and chocolate flavored pasta (I know it sounds bizarre, but apparently you eat it with a mascarpone cheese sauce).

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Every piece of chocolate I tried was different from the next. But without a doubt, my favorite stop was the tent with the chocolate kebab. Yes, you read correctly, it is in fact a kebab swirled with white and milk chocolate. The chef shaves some of the kebab into a crepe, drizzles some caramel and chocolate sauce, and then tops it off with some whipped cream. It is absolutely to die for, and surprisingly is not overly sweet.

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Whether you’re a chocoholic or merely visiting the festival to see what all the hype is about, I recommend making a day of it. It is entertaining to walk the streets and see what crazy creations they could invent next. As a broke backpacker it is the perfect place to meet people and spend little money. Furthermore, although the chocolate is the main attraction, there are other sections of the town that have markets selling purses, hats, clothes, and souvenirs. Just a warning, keep track of time, because the trains will be shut down once they get too crowded; I was forced to reroute and take a bus out of the city my last night there.  And finally the most obvious piece of advice is to pace yourself; it may not look like you’re eating a lot, but if you’re not careful, your stomach will feel it later. Bon Appetit!