Excellent Adventures: Sicily with Katie Jurbala
Our latest Excellent Adventure gives us an in-depth look into the paradise that is Sicily, the largest, and arguably most beautiful, island at the southernmost point of Italy.
We sat down with Toronto-based Art Director and Designer, Katie Jurbala, to hear all about her time exploring coastal towns, volcanos, and of course, the local cuisine from Catania to Palermo.
Bather: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Katie: My name is Katie Jurbala – I’m an Art Director and Designer based in Toronto, Ontario.
Bather: Where did you go exactly? What inspired the trip?
Katie: Late this summer I travelled to Sicily, Italy. I spent my time there relaxing along coastal beach towns and hiking through the mountainous landscape making our way from Catania to Palermo, stopping in small towns along the way. Sicily is a distillation of 3,000 years of culture, and it has been on my list of travel destinations because of its history and of course, the food.
Bather: What was the biggest highlight of the trip? Where was this?
Katie: Hiking Mount Etna was one of the many reasons I travelled to Sicily. Etna is the highest, active volcano in Europe at about 10,900ft, with most recent eruptions in February and June, 2022. It took us an hour to drive from Costa Saracena where we were staying to the base of Mt. Etna. We drove through many small towns on many arguably two-way streets as the sun started to rise and peak above the horizon. Of course, this turned out to be the time every single Sicillian frantically makes their way to work or school, passing and weaving between each other like a well rehearsed ballet. Escaping the graceful chaos Sicilians call driving, we finally reached the parking lot where we would start our climb up Etna.
There’s a few different tours you can take of the volcano ranging in difficulty and altitude. They only let a small number of people up to the highest summit of 10,000ft – just in case it erupts. By no means is it an easy climb to the summit, but it’s certainly rewarding. After climbing through basaltic lava tubes and craters, admiring the vibrant flora growing amongst the jagged lava rock, we finally stopped for lunch at the top. The ground was hot enough to burst a sheet of newspaper into flames within seconds, and had me wishing I brought a lasagna to cook instead of a sandwich.
I felt a brief moment of solitude, soaking up the sunlight, feeling the warmth of the earth, the gratitude of personal accomplishment, before our tour guide urged us to pack up our gear and quickly start our descent as there was a severe thunderstorm warning. Basaltic lava has very high levels of iron, which doesn’t pair very nicely with lightning. It got windy quickly, dense clouds started rolling in. We could see only maybe two feet ahead as we navigated a narrow path on the side of a mountain 10,000 ft high. As much as it was a true highlight of my time in Sicily, the bigger highlight was enjoying an espresso and changing into warm, dry clothes at the bottom.
Bather: What was the most memorable meal you had on the entire trip? Any restaurants you would recommend?
Katie: The only time I truly eat three (...maybe four) meals a day is when I’m travelling. Experiencing the rich palette of different cultures, foods and ingredients – then taking that knowledge home into my own kitchen is to me the best part about exploring new destinations. The regional ingredients and recipes reflect the mix of people that have conquered Sicily over many centuries. Sicilian cuisine relies on the catch of the day, local ingredients and heirloom recipes handed down many generations. A few of my favourite dishes are Spaghetti alla Bottarga (salted and cured fish roe), Pasta chî sàrdi (sardines with breadcrumbs), Caponata (a nutty eggplant dip), and of course Arancini.
Bather: What was it like staying in a small town near Catania? Did you find yourself immersed in the local culture, and if so, in what way?
Katie: When I plan my trips I try to stay in small towns – off the beaten path and immersed in local culture. I think that’s the best way to experience any new country, or town. Enjoying a morning espresso at the local cafe/espresso bar, exchanging a few broken words with another. Sicilians are the salt of the earth, they’ll welcome you into their homes with open arms and make you feel like family. It’s really special to be 4000 miles from home, completely immersed in another culture, another language and still feel the comfort of feeling at home.
Bather: Where would you say the most scenic part of your road trip from Catania to Porto Empedocle was?
Katie: It’s about a two hour drive from Catania to Porto Empodocle. Inland Sicily is known for its mountainous landscapes with endless valleys, old and new farmlands, olive trees, lemon trees, and the odd century old ruin. We set out to stop half way in Enna, a charming mediaeval town on the top of the Dittaino valley. Enna is near Lake Pergusa, Sicily's only natural lake and a great place for birdwatching. From Enna we headed toward the coast, visiting the Valley of the Temples – a UNESCO site housing extremely well preserved Ancient Greek temple remains overlooking the mediterranean sea.
Bather: How would you say this trip impacted you? Any new goals, aspirations, mindsets?
Katie: Working in the creative industries I’m always looking for an escape to reset, recharge and expand my mind through unfamiliarities. I try to document as much as possible through photography so I can look back and pull inspiration for future projects. Textures, colours, architecture, landscapes, people, interactions, expressions are unique to every place and tell a story that I can later translate into my own work. I left feeling inspired, and excited to bring the beautiful moments of Sicily into my next project.
Bather: If you were to go back to Sicily, what would you do differently?
Katie: I saw so many different parts of Sicily on this trip, so I have a good gauge on where I’d like to return to and how I would spend my time again. This visit was a little more jam packed than I’d usually prefer, but there really is SO much to see throughout Sicily. Next time I return I would love to spend some time in Taormina, from there I’d find myself a farm or vineyard in the countryside and stay for as long as I can, maybe a few weeks or a few months and just live slow. My family grows and makes their own wine, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia tending vines and helping with the harvest. Sicily has an amazing wine scene so I’d love to spend some time in the valley getting to know local winemakers, learn about the local varietals, and help out with the harvest.
Bather: Any tips for others who plan on visiting the same locations?
Katie: No matter how you spend your time in Sicily, you can’t go wrong. You can fly into Palermo or Catania airport and you will be surrounded by Sicily’s beauty and culture. You should definitely rent a car, but stay in the right lane (or you’ll get to learn every curse word in Italian). And while it might be overwhelming to decide where to visit with a long list of “unmissable” places, my advice would be to spend as much time as you can in each place you stay. Sicily, like anywhere, has so many unexpected surprises you will stumble across that you might miss if you’re rushing from place to place. Travelling never goes perfectly as planned, so choose a few destinations and really take the time to immerse yourself in the culture and take your days slowly navigating as you go. Of course, it’s good to have a plan – but you might end up having the best meal of your life in a tiny hole in the wall where you can’t read the menu, or you might take the wrong turn down a hiking trail and find yourself at a natural oasis. But definitely rent a car.
Bather: Where next? Any trips planned?
Katie: It’s been a busy year of travel for me so there isn’t a next trip planned…yet. However winter is around the corner, so any chance I get to leave for a warm destination I will be there. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, and visit some family in Finland so hopefully those will be on the horizon.
Photography by Katie Jurbala