A newlywed writer adjusts to her adopted country by honeymooning on its biggest island
It’s impossible to get a last-minute reservation at a beach club near the Sicilian city of Noto at the beginning of August. I discover this once I start calling club after club in July and am met with incessant ringing. If anyone picks up, it’s to tell me they’re full.
That’s what I get for planning a honeymoon at the same time everyone in Italy is going on vacation. But that doesn’t stop me and Marco from forging ahead. We live in Rome, and when we started planning our pandemic-era wedding for July 2021, the honeymoon was a no-brainer: We’d go to Sicily. Marco, a Roman, had never been before, and I, a Bostonian, had only been on short trips to Palermo and Acireale, a town near Catania. Sicily has everything you could want for a honeymoon: beautiful beaches, mouth-watering food, cities brimming with history… Did I mention the food?
Most important, we’d take two full weeks. A real vacation. For Italians, summer vacation is sacred. In Rome, entire offices shut down. “Chiuso per ferie” (“closed for vacation”) signs are ubiquitous on storefronts as Italians decamp to the beaches. As a freelance journalist, I travel for a living, but my trips are typically brief and intense. They’re great, but they’re work. This would be my first real vacation in years—no deadlines, no pitching, hardly any screen time at all. I may be American, but I wanted to vacation like an Italian.
My love affair with Rome and my romance with Marco both surprised me with their intensity. I first fell in love with Italy in the summer of 2008, while traveling with my family at the conclusion of my study abroad year in Paris. Strolling the streets just off Piazza Navona, seeing the ivy draped over sun-faded ocher buildings, and hearing what sounded like a thousand little operas in the conversations around me, I had an epiphany: I need to learn this language and come here to live.
When I returned to Smith College in the fall, I enrolled in Italian 101. I was the only senior in a class full of future study abroad students, but I didn’t care. As soon as I graduated, I enrolled in a teacher training course at a language school in Rome and began searching for a job teaching English.
For two years, I cobbled together just enough lessons to support myself while writing in my spare time. Those years were a whirlwind of sitting in wine bars, hobnobbing with a motley crew of UN interns, and teaching English to Italian businessmen and children, one of whom turned out to be the descendant of a prince (but that’s another story). I relished life in Rome, but teaching wasn’t for me. I wanted to write. When Columbia University accepted me into its MFA program for creative nonfiction, I didn’t hesitate to enroll.
I met Marco in 2016, on my first solo work trip, just as I was going freelance. After getting my MFA, I got a job at Travel + Leisure, chained to a desk fact checking and editing the writing of freelancers who lived the jet-setting life that I yearned for. As soon as I got a taste, I knew I wanted someone to share it with. Enter Marco—the tall, dark, and handsome waiter who remembered how I like my cappuccino and brought one on a tray with a pink rose on my last morning at Rome’s Hotel de Russie, where he works to this day. I was on my way to Sorrento, and when he asked if he could see me again, I invited him to meet me there. To my surprise, he did—and the rest is history. Before I left, he held me tight and said, “Don’t just go back to New York and forget about me. I’m crazy about you.” But, you know, in Italian.
Thank god for WhatsApp and FaceTime. For the next three years, I woke up every day to a “buongiorno” message on my phone. We talked for hours on FaceTime, and whenever work took me to Europe he would meet me. I meticulously planned our trips, and he brought his enthusiastic sense of adventure. We cruised around Venice in a Riva speedboat, ate our way through Paris, road-tripped through Basque country, visited Berlin’s cocktail bars and Amsterdam’s canals, and explored Italy from Piedmont to Puglia. As things intensified, we began calling ourselves “matti innamorati” (crazy in love). Finally, in July 2019, 10 years after I moved to Rome for the first time, I moved back there to be with him.
A week after tying the knot on July 25, Marco’s birthday, we depart for Palermo, arriving on the evening of August 1—the day before my birthday. Our plan is to spend a week on the western side of the island and then a week on the eastern side. It’s hot and humid when we pull up to the Villa Igiea, but as soon as we enter the cool, whitewashed lobby, I immediately feel relieved. I stayed here on a work trip a few years ago, and I remember thinking that the old dame was showing her age, so I was curious to see it following its renovation by the Rocco Forte Hotels group (the owners of Hotel de Russie). It’s gorgeous, but after our 12-hour drive, all we want to do is plop on the bed and crash for the night.
I had sketched out a basic itinerary for us, but unlike on my work trips, I want to keep things loose and flexible. The next morning, my birthday begins with a leisurely breakfast on the terrace, and then we grab a couple of striped lounge chairs by the pool and settle into vacation mode: me reading a magazine and swimming, him napping in the shade. Feeling restless after a couple of hours—vacationing is hard!—we decide to explore the gardens, and Marco runs into a colleague from Florence who is working here as the executive chef. When we return to our room after a light lunch of caponata and shrimp crudo at the pool bar, I’m surprised to find a little birthday cake and a bottle of bubbly waiting for me. (One of the staff members saw my Instagram post of the pool and sent it up.)
Before dinner, we take a walk around the historic center of Palermo, stopping to admire the faded grandeur of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi and its Pompeii-esque exterior frescoes. Just as I’m sticking my iPhone between the bars of the fence to take a photo, Marco waves at me from inside. The theater is closed, but he finds an open door and goes inside anyway to use the bathroom. He’s always exploring—especially if a place looks off-limits. Whenever we stay at fancy hotels, he gets the inside scoop from the staff. He relates to them, as he knows what it’s like to deal with demanding guests (he has served more than his fair share of Hollywood stars), or to be in the trenches at Sunday brunch when you’re understaffed.
I want to show him the Cattedrale di Palermo, which is a microcosm of the city—a mish-mash of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles, reflecting the many influences Sicily has seen over its long history—and the nearby Palazzo dei Normanni’s Cappella Palatina, whose eye-popping gold Byzantine mosaics were a highlight of my first trip to Palermo. The palace chapel’s fence is locked, though, so I can’t show him the glowing interior. It’s OK, though—we’ll have another chance someday.
From Palermo, we drive south to stay at Verdura Resort, near Agrigento, where we tour the Valley of the Temples by night. We then go northwest to spend a couple of days in the beach town of San Vito lo Capo. Couscous is as common as pasta here, and we try some alongside a decadent seafood soup at Dal Cozzaro, one of the best restaurants in town. That meal has nothing on the gelato and granita at Gelateria Minaudo, though; we go back three times over the course of two days to try as many flavors as possible. (The almond granita is the best.)
Noto, our base on the eastern side of the island, is well positioned for day trips to Baroque towns such as Siracusa and the fishing village of Marzamemi. Each has its charms—such as the tonnara (tuna processing plant) in Marzamemi that’s been restored and now boasts a market selling artisan goods—but of all the places we visit, my favorite is the island of Ortigia, the historic part of Siracusa that’s across a couple of bridges. With its narrow streets and Baroque architecture, it’s the ideal combination of charming city and seaside destination. Less ideal: It’s 119 degrees Fahrenheit the day we’re there. Our clothes are soaked through after a trip to the market, where we slurp oysters and spend €45 on seafood and €55 on dried fruit, capers, and olives to bring back to our Airbnb for dinner. But we don’t mind. We simply do what we’ve grown accustomed to doing on our vacation: cool off with a granita and go to the beach.
As blissful as these two weeks are, I can’t help but question what’s next as our honeymoon comes to an end. I assumed, while in Palermo, that we would return soon so I could show Marco the Cappella Palatina—that we have a whole lifetime of trips ahead of us now that we’re married. But do we? For nearly a decade, my identity has been wrapped up in being a travel writer and editor. For the better part of four years, I spent around 180 days per year on the road, and much of the romance of it was tied to reuniting with Marco after months apart. But the pandemic has made me question if I can really keep up that pace. Plus, now that we live together, I don’t need to fly across the ocean to see him. What does our future in travel hold? Will this part of my life be relegated to the past? How much of my identity as an American journalist will be erased as I become a resident of Italy and a wife responsible not just for planning our adventures but for running our household? What if we have kids?
These questions linger in the back of my mind as we bob in the water at Fontane Bianche, a beach near Noto recommended by a shopkeeper in town. With no chance of getting into a beach club, Marco and I do what any resourceful Italian would—we buy an umbrella and seek a little patch of spiaggia libera where we can spread our towels on the sand for free. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only American on this beach,” I tell Marco as we hang on to a yellow floatie, letting ourselves get pushed by the gentle waves.
It’s funny, in the U.S. I don’t feel American at all, but here I do. As much as I want to assimilate, I suppose I can’t escape my roots. But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe I just need to think like an Italian when it comes to vacation planning: Take two weeks off every summer, and start calling now to book a season pass at the beach club.