Sunday, February 6, 2022


Happy wishes to all in this new calendar year!  I didn’t intend for so much time to pass before posting again, but it has, and I have news, which is that I’ve switched to a new service, www.follow.it, to support my blog.  There are all sorts of additional features for followers (that weren’t available on the former Feedburner service), and you may now define filters and select delivery channels – please click to learn more and sign up: https://follow.it/thecollectedtraveler?action=followPub&filter.  Sincere thanks for continuing to ‘follow’ me, and I’m grateful for your help in sharing The Collected Traveler with others.  
    

Photo of the lunch menu on 20 September, 2019: panelle, casarecce pasta with zucchine and pine nuts, Mediterranean style swordfish steaks, roast potatoes with fresh garden herbs, 
almond milk biancomangiare, Regaleali Bianco 2018, Regaleali Nero d'Avola 2017, 
Vecchio Florio Marsala Secco Superiore 2013 

The passage of time really doesn't affect this post, my final one on Sicily: the specific topic -- the cooking class in Palermo with Nicoletta Polo, the wife of Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, who is the adopted son of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) the singular book about Sicily – hasn’t changed, though the pandemic certainly curtailed in-person classes for many months.  As I mentioned in my initial post on Sicily, the cooking class is the main reason I planned the trip in the first place.  The entire experience -- staying in one of the apartments in the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, taking the class, and seeing the private rooms of the apartment and the original manuscript of The Leopard -- is on my short list of the most memorable of my life.  While there are some cookbook authors who offer classes in their homes (Diana Kennedy, Giuliano Hazan, and Patricia Wells are a few), I'm not aware of any other cooking classes that are held in the homes of literary figures.  It is positively a completely immersive experience like no other.   

Some background about the Tomasi, Lampedusa, and Lanza family names may be helpful here as they are all interconnected: the Tomasi name dates back as far as the late 1500s, to a Mario Tomasi, descendant of one branch of the Tomasi family that moved from central Italy to the Kingdom of Naples.  Mario was a powerful lord who had armed two galleys for the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, but he was also arrested for embezzlement and imprisoned.  After his release, he married Francesca Caro, heiress to the Barons of Montechiaro (Montechiaro refers to the town of Palma de Montechiaro, in southern Sicily in the province of Agrigento) and the Lords of Lampedusa, a family of sea captains who came to Sicily from Spain.  Lampedusa is an island 173 miles off the southern coast of Sicily, southwest of Malta and very close to Tunisia, and in recent years has become known as a refugee island due to the large number of migrants who have landed there.  A very moving account of a particularly tragic day in the island’s migration history is The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, an award-winning BBC reporter.  The optician, Carmine Menna, rarely gives interviews because he is haunted by what he witnessed that day.  “Hundreds of drowning people were in the water screaming for help with their last breath,” Kirby writes, “And it was at that moment that the Optician understood that it was no longer an option to stay a spectator on the sidelines.  He realized the migration crisis was just as much his problem as anyone else’s.”  Learn more, and help, by reading ‘Europe Begins at Lampedusa’ and Comitato 3 ottobre.      

The Lanza name appears in the family history in the 13th century, when the Lanza Branciforte family, of Swabian origin, moved to Sicily.  This family eventually owned the whole bastioned seafront on this side of Palermo, and in the 17th century they built the Branciforte di Butera palace.  In 1849 the palazzo was bought by Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, with the indemnity paid by the king of Naples for the expropriation of the island of Lampedusa.  Giulio’s full name was actually Fabrizio Ferdinando Francesco Baldassare Melchiorre Salvatore Antonino Domenico Rosario Gaetano Tomasi, and he was also the 8th Prince of Lampedusa and the 9th Duke of Palma de Montechiaro, and the great-grandfather of The Leopard’s author. The author’s father was Giulio Maria Tomasi, and his mother was Beatrice Mastrogiovanni Tasca Filangeri di Cutò, whose family was from Naples.  Giuseppe di Lampedusa was the last Prince of Lampedusa, the 11th (if you, like me, are wondering how there could still be Princes of Lampedusa after Giulio Fabrizio, it’s because the abolition of feudalism in 1812 separated titles from land, so people who had titles might no longer own the actual places.  This was explained to me by Louis Mendola, author of Sicilian Geneaology and Heraldry (and many other good books), who I had the great pleasure of meeting in Palermo in 2019.  He added that the state confiscated the island of Lampedusa and compensated the prince for it, but the prince could still call himself a prince and so could his heirs.)  An added note about the Tasca and Lanza names: you may recall in an earlier post that I recommended the cookbooks by Anna Tasca Lanza, who was very influential in introducing Sicilian cuisine to Americans.  Anna was Nicoletta's sister-in-law, and since her passing in 2010, the cooking classes at Tenuta Regaleali are taught by Anna's daughter, Fabrizia, Gioacchino's and Nicoletta's niece (Regaleali wines are poured during the lunch prepared in the cooking class; they’re imported by Winebow and are generally not too hard to find in North America).

The Leopard, which covers the years from 1860 to 1883 with the final chapter placed in 1910, is one of my most favorite books, and is the most perfect companion read for a trip to Sicily.  The edition I recommend is the 2007 paperback published by Pantheon on the occasion of the novel's 50th anniversary, which is the version translated into English by Archibald Colquhoun and includes a Foreword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (as an aside, Gioacchino is a renowned music history educator, opera specialist, and author, and a former director of The Italian Cultural Institute in New York).  When it was agreed that Lampedusa would adopt Gioacchino, Lampedusa went to Portugal to see King Umberto II (the last king of Italy who was exiled in 1946 after voters abolished the monarchy in a referendum) to ask his permission for the adoption and to carry on the title of Duke of Palma.  ‘Leopardo’ is the more common translation for leopard, while a more proper translation of ‘gattopardo’ refers to wild cats, like ocelots, which (significantly) were diminishing in number by the mid-1800s in Europe; in Sicilian dialects during Lampedusa’s time a leopard was referred to as gattopardu.  British critic Jonathan Jones, in a piece called 'A Place in the Sun' (The Guardian, 3 May, 2003) wrote that the book has become a morbidly seductive guidebook to Sicily, "its glamour and despair; the sensual revelling in decrepit palaces, burnt landscapes studded with temples, sugary pasticceria (Lampedusa spent a lot of time in cake shops) and the magnificent ball in a gilded Palermo salon that is so gloriously visualised in Visconti's just re-released 1963 film of the book, make you breathe Sicily."  In my opinion the book should be read slowly so that the beauty and wisdom of sentences and passages may be fully understood and appreciated.  While the film by Luchino Visconti (1963) is quite good, under no circumstances should it be seen without first reading the book.  There are so very many quotable lines.  Most quoted is, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” but I like others even more:

“Again the Prince found himself facing one of the enigmas of Sicily: in this secret island, where houses are barred and peasants refuse to admit they even know the way to their own village in clear view on a hillock within a few minutes’ walk from here, in spite of the ostentatious show of mystery, reserve is a myth.”

“Then one of them asked me what those Italian volunteers were really coming to do in Sicily.  ‘They are coming to teach us good manners,’ I replied in English.  ‘But they won’t succeed, because we think we are gods.’”     

“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” 

The book's significance is enormous: it's one of the best selling Italian novels of the 20th century, with more than 10 million copies sold; it's required reading in many high schools in Sicily and throughout Italy; the book and its author were featured on an Italian postage stamp; and it was honored with the Premio Strega, a prestigious Italian literary award.  Mary Taylor Simeti, in her wonderful book Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, notes that the word gattopardesco entered the Italian language,  describing anything that reflects the opulent tastes of the Sicilian aristocracy (the timbale of macaroni in Visconti’s film is described as "Leopardesque").  In Robert V. Camuto's Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, in the chapter featuring Planeta, Camuto is in conversation with Peppe, the foreman of Planeta’s vineyards, and Peppe asks, “Have you read Il Gattopardo?” and Camuto replies that he has.  “Read it again,” Peppe said.  Further, the illustrated book Sicilian Twilight: The Last Leopards, by the team of Jean-Bernard Naudin, Gerard Gefen, Lydia Fasoli, and Fanny Calefati di Canalotti (The Vendome Press, 2000), details this unique aristocratic slice of Sicily in chapters like ‘A Brief History of the Leopards,’ ‘The Character of a Leopard,’ and ‘A Day in the Life of a Leopard.’ As revealed in the book, Sicily's great families had several residences, "one in town, another a short distance away, and one or several estates" and "When speaking of town, it was naturally Palermo."  Families were able to maintain these residences because of the large incomes they were fortunate to enjoy over past centuries and because of primogeniture, which guaranteed the right of succession to the firstborn, legitimate child (as opposed to any illegitimate child or a shared inheritance), so they were able to avoid the dissolution of their fortunes.  Lampedusa had at least six family residences, including the town house in Palermo (in the via Lampedusa at number 17, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943); the house and castle at Palma di Montechiaro; and the castle of Santa Margherita Belice (an inland mountain town fictionalized as the summer village of Donnafugata in the novel; the castle was destroyed by an earthquake some years after Lampedusa’s death). Marlena de Blasi, author of That Summer in Sicily, provides a note about the possible origins of the word Donnafugata: Ayn as Jafat is Arabic for "fountain of health," which then became Ronnafuata, and over centuries, was further corrupted into Donnafugata.  It's also the trade name of the Sicilian wines produced by the Rallo family, fourth-generation winemakers of Etna, Marsala, Pantelleria, and Vittoria. 

Regarding the homes of the Leopards, Gerard Gefen notes in Sicilian Twilight that many of them had no distinctive façade and were not limited to a particular street or part of town.  He adds that "we must settle a little problem of vocabulary as in Sicily, more than elsewhere, the nature of things counts more than their appellation.  No Leopard would have used the term Palazzo, or palace, to designate his dwelling.  He would have left that expression to the lower classes, accountants, lawyers, tradesmen, or servants, while he would speak of his Casa, or house, with a capital C when writing, but never when speaking. In fact, in Italian the word 'palazzo' designates any large building, noble or ignoble, of which those that house a state organization are to be absolutely avoided."  

While there is a resemblance between the Leopards of Sicily and other aristocracies, Gefen says the Sicilian nobility was by far the last feudal phenomenon in Western Europe, and on the final page of the book he summarizes, "The truth is that there is no "last Leopard" because the end of the species was already written into its generic structure, and the race, already on the way to extinction at the end of the 19th century, was swallowed up in the great cataclysm of World War I, at the same time as the gold standard, the petits Savoyards, the Tsars of Russia, and the supremacy of good old Europe.” (Petits Savoyards refers to children from the Savoy region of France who were sent to work in other parts of France during the winter months when their families couldn’t afford to feed them; they often became street musicians or chimney sweeps and were part of French popular culture from the 18th to the early 20th century.)

And so now, after that rather long detour, we come back to the palazzo at number 28, via Butera, the last home of Lampedusa until his death in 1957 and the site of the cooking classes.  The day begins at 8:30, when everyone gathers at the office and then finds seats in vans, which drive a short distance to the Il Capo market.  Nicoletta, officially known as the Duchess of Palma as Gioacchino is the Duke, stops at a number of market stalls (she knows practically everyone) to pick up the particular ingredients for that day's lunch.  Along the way she shares a lot of market lore and points out various culinary items that are unique to Sicily; what you see depends on the season of your visit.  Once back at Butera, everyone goes up to the (gorgeous) outdoor terrace to pick herbs (and look at all the turtles that are walking around), and then it's downstairs to the kitchen, where everyone is assigned a task (culinary novices need not worry: there are all sorts of simple things to do to prepare for the meal, which is never very fussy, and almost all the tasks are undertaken by more than one person).  After a few hours, when the preparation is nearly complete, everyone takes a break for a glass of sparkling wine.  At this moment, as I looked around at everyone raising their glasses in a toast, sunlight was also pouring in through the floor to ceiling French doors which opened onto an interior courtyard open to the sky.  This was the first time throughout the day that I had to pinch myself as a reminder that I really was here.  In addition to helping prepare a meal, over the last four hours I had met some of my fellow students, wonderful people from other parts of the world, and our conversations were stimulating, warm, and sometimes funny, usually when Nicoletta made us laugh.  Finally, the last steps in the meal are completed, and everyone walks to the dining room, where a beautiful table has been set.  Students who are part of a couple are requested not to sit together, and Nicoletta sits at one end of the long table and Gioacchino sits at the opposite end.  A team of servers brings out each dish and serves everyone individually.  I loved every dish on our menu, but perhaps the casarecce pasta was my favorite precisely because it seemed like it would be good but not great, but it turned out to be incredibly delicious -- creamy even though there is no cream in the recipe; I think the quality of the pasta has something to do with this.  

After the meal, Nicoletta and Gio lead everyone on a tour of the other public rooms of the palazzo (as opposed to their private quarters).  These include the library and the ballroom, where the manuscript of The Leopard is kept in a glass vitrine.  And then, by about 4:00 or so, the day with the duchess is over.  At times when I think of it, it seems like a dream.  But I really was there.          

Interested travelers should visit the site noted at the beginning of this post and contact Nicoletta by email to inquire about joining a class as there is no set schedule.  Some cooking class students stay elsewhere in Palermo, but I recommend staying in one of the Butera 28 apartments (see my earlier Palermo post on 3 May, 2020 for more details).  In her recent end-of-year newsletter, Nicoletta wrote that the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi is now a member of the Associazione Nazionale Case della Memoria (National Association of Houses of Memory) and it has been accredited and certified by the prestigious Dream&Charme (the apartments in the palazzo received certification and the palazzo itself was awarded a five-star certification as well).  She also reported that the accomplished Palermo-born pianist, Danilo Manto, now living in Milan, performed a recorded concert in the ballroom of the palazzo in 2021 (not only is it a beautiful version of Chopin’s Walz in A Flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1, but there are great images of the ballroom).     

Related Recommended Reads & Walking Tours & Lampedusa's Grave:

'Annals of Place: The Palace the the City' by Fernanda Eberstadt, The New Yorker (23 December, 1991).  This excellent, atmospheric article was what introduced me to The Leopard, thirty-one years ago.  Besides being about Lampedusa, Gioacchino, and Nicoletta, it's also about Palermo, and is some of the best writing about the city, at that particular time, anywhere.  

Childhood Memories and Other Stories, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, foreword by Ian Thomson, translated by Stephen Parkin (Alma Books, 2013).  In addition to Lampedusa's memories of two childhood houses -- the mansion in Palermo and the palazzo Filangeri di Cutò in Santa Margherita di Belice, home of his maternal family members -- there are works of fiction.   

Lampedusa: A Novel, Steven Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  A beautifully written book that recounts the last years of Lampedusa's life when he was working on The Leopard.  The gorgeous jacket photo is of the ballroom in the palazzo Gangi in Palermo.  Price quite brilliantly follows the events of Lampedusa's life near its end accurately while fully immersing himself in Lampedusa's head.  Lampedusa was diagnosed with emphysema, and he expresses two key thoughts in the book:  "We are from a world that no longer exists.  If I do not write that world, write it down, then what will become of it?" and "And he understood his great regret: after him would come nothing.  He had produced neither son nor daughter.  He had failed them all."  In his review of the book, Joseph Luzzi (author of the wonderful My Two Italies) observes that "Lampedusa's ancestor, the Leopard, strode across history's stage in the long, proud bounds of the majestic beast he resembled.  His quieter, gentler scion, a creature of words to the last, was only ever truly at home in books.  For him to have ventured forth late in life from his literary safe haven to write "The Leopard" is a story as improbable -- and at times fascinating -- as the historical paradoxes of his masterpiece."   ‘In Search of Lampedusa’s Sicily’ also by Steven Price is a wonderful companion piece written for 'Work in Progress,' a Farrar, Straus promotional newsletter.  In it, Price wonders if Gioacchino felt he understood Lampedusa differently now, after all these years.  “I understand him more now,” Gioacchino replied. He was older, I knew, than Lampedusa had been when he died. He added quietly: “He was much more, I think, than the book.” 

The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, David Gilmour (Pantheon, 1991), the definitive volume on Lampedusa's life, and A Biography Through Images, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (Alma Books, 2014) with a foreword by David Gilmour and Nicoletta was responsible for the picture research. 

‘The Oldest Money’ by James McAuley, Town & Country (December 2019/January 2020).  A particularly good interview with Nicoletta and Gioacchino by McAuley, former Paris correspondent for The Washington Post (the article is accompanied by some wonderful photos of the palazzo's interiors).  McAuley holds a PhD in French history and is the author of the excellent The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021). 

'Sicily, Through the Eyes of The Leopard' by Adam Begley, The New York Times (6 July, 2008).  Begley writes, "I believe that if you love the novel (or the movie), you should start planning your trip right away, not because you'll find Lampedusa's Sicily waiting for you when you touch down (you won't, believe me), but because the bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia that pervades "The Leopard is also the sensibility that savors the decaying grandeur of an island burdened with layer upon layer of tragic history -- and blessed also with startling beauty, much of it perpetually waning."  

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The tomb of Lampedusa and his wife, Alessandra Wolff Stommersee, is at the Cimitero dei Capppuccini in Palermo (piazza Cappucini 1, postal code 90129). 

Sicilia Letteraria, a cultural association that develops and supports literary tourism projects, offers Lampedusa-themed walking tours such as 'On the trail of the Leopard: in Palermo between the two houses of the Prince' and 'On the trail of the Leopard: at the Kalsa between Garibaldi memories and the set of Visconti's film.'  Excursions to Palma di Montechiaro and Santa Margherita di Belice are also offered.   



Saturday, June 19, 2021

 Today is Juneteenth, a consolidation of the name of the month and the date (June 19th, 1865) on which federal troops under General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and officially announce the end of slavery.  Though Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on the first of January, 1863, he was then President of the United States but not of the eleven Confederate states, including Texas.  The Proclamation was therefore only applicable to the Confederate states once the Civil War was over.  Until this time, slavery still went on in these states, and it must have been fairly easy to withhold the news from the black residents of Galveston, an island two miles off the Texas mainland.  Since General Granger delivered the message, however, Juneteenth has the distinction of being the longest-running African American holiday, has been rightly celebrated as an "occasion of monumental value to U.S. history," as Desiree Rew, creator of Rue Desiree: For the Love of Food and Travel, expressed in a piece she contributed to Travel Awaits.  Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, in 1980, and 47 other states (and the District of Columbia) later followed.  Happily, it became a national holiday only a few days ago.  There are lots of ways to join in Juneteenth celebrations -- see the Blkfreedom site for details of its own 2021 program -- and as Rew noted that at many festivals there are vendors who specialize in "books that feature and educate on the history of Juneteenth and black advancement from 1865 to the present," it seems like an appropriate time for me to enthuse about Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  

I've been meaning to write a post about the museum since I visited in the summer of 2019 with my husband and our good friends Pat and Linda, but I got behind and then the pandemic happened.  In fact the museum is still temporarily closed; but if you live in the New York metropolitan area or plan to be here, make a note to continue checking the website for its reopening as a visit is truly worthwhile.       

All visits are by guided tours as only a limited number of people can fit in the rooms of the house, where Louis and his wife, Lucille, moved in 1943.  I didn't take any photographs so I have none to share here, but there are some great ones included in this article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine.  Photographer Jack Bradley, who first heard Armstrong and his band play on Cape Cod in the 1950s and who passed away in the spring of this year (here is his obituary which appeared in The New York Times), devotedly collected everything of interest related to Armstrong's life, and it was all acquired by the House Museum.  The house is not at all fancy, and my favorite room is the kitchen -- the cabinets are bright and bold turquoise!  Our guide was great, and at the tour's end, we had a few questions about some of the facts he shared and he recommended two books (that are for sale at the museum), What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years by Ricky Riccardi, who is the museum's Director of Research Collections (Pantheon, hardcover, 2011; Vintage, paperback, 2012) and Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway, hardcover, 1997; Crown, paperback, 1998).  I enjoyed them both, and there's not really much overlap between them.  



Louis is incredibly quoteworthy, and a few of his memorable remarks in What a Wonderful World include: 

"I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show.  My life has been my music; it's always come first, but the music ain't worth nothing if you can't lay it on the public.  The main thing is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people."  

"I don't give a damn how many come in, if it was one or one thousand.  I ain't goin' play no louder or no softer, and I ain't goin' play no less.  I might play a little more, but always up to par." 

Not without criticism, he refused to participate in marches and protests, not because he didn't believe in the cause but because "...if I'd be out somewhere marching with a sign and some cat hits me in my chops, I'm finished.  A trumpet man gets hit in the chops and he's through.  If my people don't dig me the way I am, I'm sorry.  If they don't go along with me giving my dough instead of marching, well -- every cat's entitled to his opinion.  But that's the way I figure I can help out and still keep on working.  If they let me alone on this score I'll do my part, in my way."  

Ricky Riccardi, who also maintains a great blog, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, wrote that Armstrong said the lyrics of 'What a Wonderful World' meant so much to him.  Riccardi believes that  "Few people could really know the meaning of the phrase "wonderful world" as much as Louis Armstrong."  And about the song 'We Shall Overcome,' Riccardi adds, "To think about what Armstrong, singing those lyrics and all the obstacles he overcame to achieve what he did -- poor childhood, racism, becoming the scorn of younger black musicians and writers -- he overcame it all to become the greatest, most important jazz musician of them all."     

In another good book, Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (Oxford University Press, 1999), Louis noted in the first chapter, 'Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family,' "The Lord kept his Arms around us all the time.  He could see that, all we wanted to do in life is to live and at least be contented.  Respect people and be respected." 

I think if Louis Armstrong were still with us today he'd surely be playing his trumpet, with much joy, on the occasion of Juneteenth.  






Tuesday, January 19, 2021





Fontana Pretoria, Palermo.  The work of Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani, the nude statuary of the fountain represented mythological figures but to the Palermitani it was known as the Fountain of Shame.   


"Anyone who keeps only to the main roads in Sicily, dashing from celebrated monument to celebrated monument, and who doesn't absorb some of the Sicilian way with time and take an hour or so to potter off along the byroads, turns their back on many delights of this island of parallel universes...In Sicily, the remote past, the near past and the absolute present are jammed together or piled on top of one another."  -- Matthew Fort, Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons:Travels in Sicily on a Vespa

"Closer to Tunisia and Greece than it is to the north of the country, this is not the generic Italy of gingham tablecloths and breadsticks.  But it is, genuinely, perhaps more than anywhere, the authentic Mediterranean."  -- Mina Holland, The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them

"Any story about Sicily will have love and death, betrayal and decay running through it." 
        -- 'Rick Stein's Long Weekends,' BBC 

"The largest of Italy's twenty regions, detached by sea, with a grand history all its own and more rulers and a more diverse past than any part of the mainland -- Sicily is very much a different Italy." -- Mimi Thorisson, Old World Italian: Recipes & Secrets From Our Travels in Italy

Finally, here is Sicily A to Z.  

Sicily has not had nearly the number of Covid-19 cases as elsewhere in Italy, and last year, the regional government launched a 'See Sicily' voucher program: visitors who reserved and pre-paid for a three-night stay at a lodging would receive the fourth night free, and discounts would be offered at various cultural sites and museums.  I read about this program in several places at the time, and while it's unclear what its status is now,  I recommend inquiring about it if you're planning an upcoming trip -- I did read that the program may be extended to December 2021.   This Visit Sicily page has updates on coronavirus guidelines.  

Travel + Leisure announced that Italy is its 2021 Destination of the Year! Correspondent Maria Shollenbarger writes that "The posterity of the things that say Italy to us -- from an almond granita by the shore in Sicily to the illuminated façade of San Miniato al Monte in Florence -- is in our hands."  Time to start planning!    

A
Accommodation Rentals.  For those who want to settle into in one area of Sicily, as opposed to exploring across the island, a good agency with singular properties is The Thinking Traveller.  The husband-and-wife founders are Rossella and Huw Beaugié, and Rossella is Sicilian.  They wisely don't concentrate on the entire world, instead specializing in certain corners of the Mediterranean: Sicily, Puglia, the Greek Island, Corsica, and Mallorca.  The company has been voted Top Villa Rental Company in the World for five consecutive years by the Condé Nast Traveller (UK) Reader's Choice Awards, and its website is filled with substantive, well-written information.  


Agrigento.  Originally named Akragas by the Greeks who settled here on Sicily's southeastern coast in 528 BC, the site of the Valley of the Temples is absolutely beautiful.  The temples are on the crest of a hill with an almost unobstructed view out to the sea -- if this was in the States, there would no doubt be massive commercial development between the temple site and the water's edge.  











The Greek philosopher Empedocles said of the citizens of Akragas that they "lived as if they were to die tomorrow and built as if they were to live forever."  As Agrigento is covered well in other sources and is one of Sicily's most visited places, I won't dwell at length on it here; but I emphasize that it's wise to carefully consider a visit: especially in hot weather it's best to arrive early as not only will it be cooler but as the hours go by it gets more crowded (and the line for the WC is long).  Another option is to visit late in the afternoon or early evening.  Note, also, that there are two parts to the visit, the Archaeological Park with the temples and the Museo Archeologico Regionale Pietro Griffo, with its many objects found in the vicinity that really bring the entire site to life.  The Valley of the Temples was proclaimed a World Heritage site in 1997 and the Concordia temple is one of the best preserved Greek Doric temples in the world.  A descriptive sign at the temple -- 'Il Tempio Ligneo: Origine dell'Ordine Dorico' (The Wooden Temple - Origin of the Doric Order) -- states that "Today almost nobody remembers an aesthetic truth that in Greek and Roman times was understood by artists, patrons and the general public: that before the monumental Doric temples were immortalized in marble, they were built of wood."  Sarah Murdoch, author of the Rick Steves Sicily guide, adds that Sicily has no marble, so the temples were built with sandstone, which doesn't weather well.  To prevent erosion from the sea winds and to imitate the look of marble, the sandstone was coated in plaster.  The stone was quarried in a nearby hill (Murdoch says you can see the quarry if you look inland toward the modern city) and after a temple was constructed and the carved decorations were applied, it was "coated in plaster and painted in bold colors -- very different from the classical white that we associate with ancient temples (or, in this case, golden yellow).     


Besides the temples, I liked the Giardino dei Giusti del Mondo (Garden of the Righteous of the World) and the pretty Villa Aurea, which is between the Concordia temple and the Temple of Heracles and was the private home of Sir Alexander Hardcastle, a captain in the British army.  In 1921, Hardcastle came to Agrigento (called Girgenti at the time) to benefit from the mild climate and to admire the archaeological heritage.  It didn't take long for him to decide to live here permanently so he had the villa built and stayed until his death in 1933 - can you imagine living in such a lovely place?  The sign in front of the Villa notes that "Hardcastle had an insatiable passion for finding the ancient monuments of the Valley of the Temples and financed many excavations directed by the archaeologist Pirro Marconi.  Thanks to Hardcastle's initiative, eight columns of the Temple of Heracles were re-erected and many ancient monuments were discovered."  Today the Villa Aurea houses some offices of the Park Authority, and you can see a bronze bust of Hardcastle in the courtyard in front of the Villa's main entrance.    

In La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World, Dianne Hales writes about walking around the Valley of the Temples with a local guide, Pina, who is of the last generation to have worked the nearby fields.  Pina's grandfather plowed the land with a donkey and her grandmother bartered produce for household goods.  "We didn't need money," Pina explained.  "We didn't need anyone else.  We had the earth."  Hales emphasizes that this "profound appreciation" for the myth of Demeter and Persephone has endured.  Pina tells her that 'I am proud to be a child of the people who came here and conquered and survived.  This sea was their sea, and it is mine.  This land was their land, and it is mine.  I feel their passion in my veins."  When Hales asks Pina if she could ever imagine living anywhere else, Pina shakes her head no.  "We sit in silence, amid the fallen gods and their temples, listening to the wind and the waves."  

Articles about Sicily.  Here are some articles from my files that I particularly enjoy, for one reason or another, and recommend (unfortunately, many of my most favorite articles are not to be found online, so I have not listed them here):  'Norman Hill Towns of Sicily' by Mary Taylor Simeti (The New York Times, 20 October, 1991); 'Enthralled by Sicily, Again' by Francine Prose (The New York Times, 5 June, 2016); 'Not Your Godfather's Sicily' by Ondine Cohane (Condé Nast Traveler, January 2009); 'Head Found on Fifth Avenue' by Alexander Stille  (The New Yorker, 24 May, 1999); ''The Hill Towns of Sicily: Above the Fray' by Theresa Maggio (The New York Times, 2 June, 1996); 'Sicily' by R. W. Apple, Jr. (Departures, July 2001); 'At Home in the Heart of Sicily' by Russell Shorto (The New York Times, 18 August, 2013); and 'Going for Baroque' by Guy Trebay (Travel + Leisure, March 2004; the online title of this article is 'Villas of Sicily').  In this last piece, Trebay shares some of the best observations about Sicily I've read anywhere.  "In Sicily, a visitor is repeatedly left struggling to reconcile excesses of artistic splendor and moral squalor, to negotiate between the occult and the rational, sensuality and intellect," and his friend Piero Longo, the author of a book on Sicily's architectural history, tells him, "If you can't accept contradiction, you can't understand Sicily."  And, "Colonized relentlessly over centuries, Sicilians appear to have absorbed and then subtly subsumed whatever it would have been fatal to resist outright.  Thus the island became the exotic amalgam that it remains, and the Sicilians a blended people, so tempered by their heritage that they sometimes suffer from what the writer Gesualdo Bufalino called "an excess of identity."  A Sicilian's birthright, Bufalino noted, is the conviction that he stands at the center of the world."    


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Baglio Occhipinti.  As I noted in my first Sicily post, I always consult Faith Willinger's website for recommendations on accommodations and places to eat in Italy, and Baglio Occhipinti was an inn she enthused about so I took a look.  Its location, in the southeastern part of the island, fit perfectly into the itinerary I'd worked out as it was not too far a drive from Taormina (where we were driving from) and close enough to Noto for a day trip.  Plus, it was solidly in the countryside, providing a contrast to the urban locales where we'd been.  In fact, it was so far out in the country that when we were only about fifteen minutes away we were wondering if we'd made a wrong turn; it didn't seem possible that a place as lovely as it looked online could be here, where the roads were narrow and there was nothing but farms.  But suddenly, we arrived at the gates, and we were buzzed in and drove down a dirt lane lined with olive and almond trees to the small parking area.  'Baglio' is a uniquely Sicilian word that refers to a walled country estate and today is often applied to contemporary wineries.  According to the very helpful Do Bianchi site, maintained by Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D, the word baglio first appeared in the 17th century, when Sicily's Spanish rulers (who needed to expand wheat production for their growing empire) encouraged citizens to move from the cities into the Sicilian countryside, which then was largely undeveloped.  Widespread banditry prompted the newly licensed land owners to build walled country estates around a baglio or courtyard.  These fortifications helped secure the agricultural products and provided safety for those who lived there.  Many formerly abandoned bagli have been turned into agriturismi, working farms with accommodations for guests.  Baglio Occhipinti as a working farm dates from the 1800s and its transformation into a lovely inn was overseen by Fausta Occhipinti, a landscape architect.  Other family members are involved in the daily running of the estate, which also produces numerous fruits and vegetables.  The overall feel of the entire inn is one of warmth and light; white is the dominant color in all the rooms (even the interior stone walls are white) and in the public rooms there are comfy white sofas and tables piled with lots of interesting art books. Some contemporary furniture is mixed in nicely with antique country pieces. The most historic feature in the main house is the palmento, which I mentioned in my first Sicily post -- it refers to where the grapes are put so they can be pressed (stomped on, skins included) and it, too, is a uniquely Sicilian word.  you put the grapes into the palmento where they were stomped on (skins included).The indoor dining room shares space with the palmento and is where we were served lunch on our first day.  Otherwise we had breakfast and dinner outdoors, and all the meals were delicious and filling.   Our first breakfast was so substantial that after we enjoyed the freshly squeezed juice, assortment of breads, coffee, and yogurt we thought we were finished only to be brought sliced fruit, eggs, toast with olive oil and herbs, and mini cannoli.  The 12 guest rooms are of varying sizes and layouts.  Our room (Etna) had a downstairs sitting room and the bedroom and bathroom were up a (steep) flight of stairs.  The pool is in the citrus grove and is a delight.  Fausta's sister, Arianna, oversees the 54 acres of the namesake vineyards, which are free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  The vineyards produce the indigenous varietals of Albanello and Zibbibo (white) and Frappato and Nero d'Avola (red), and Arianna also produces a DOCG Cerasuolo di Vittoria blend of 50% Frappato and 50% Nero d'Avola (as an aside: Occhipinti wines have been served at Ottolenghi in London).  It's easy to while away a day here and never leave the estate and be perfectly happy, or one can be more ambitious and visit the nearby village of Pedalino or drive to Noto, as we did.  All guests are given a small jar of homemade jam when checking out, a wonderful parting gift.  Note that some flies or bees or both may interrupt your outdoor lounging -- this is the real countryside, after all -- so bring some repellent if you think they will bother you.  The two photos below were taken in the palmento room.  
                    




















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Caltagirone.  When I saw a photograph of the long staircase with tiled risers in Caltagirone,  knew I had to visit this hilltop town, known for its ceramics.  There are several competing stories about its name: one is that it derives from Arabic, Qal' at al Ghiran (Rock of the Vases).  Another is that it refers to the once bountiful supply of wild boar in the area, still another that it could be "belonging to Gela," a nearby settlement.  "Castle of the Genoese" is another -- the Genoese occupied the castle in 1040, shortly before Caltagirone was first recorded.  Whatever the origin of the name, the town is lovely and there are ceramics just about everywhere you look.  The staircase (Scala di Santa Maria del Monte) is the most famous example, and I counted 141 steps from the bottom to the top.  It's named for the church of Santa Maria del Monte which has, since 1608, connected the lower and upper parts of the town.  The ceramic tiles were designed by Giuseppe Giacolone in 1606 and altered in the 19th century.  Though there are lots of ceramic workshops along the Scala and throughout the town, Caltagirone didn't feel very touristy.  It seemed like people were going about their (non-touristy) business on a beautiful day, and I would have liked to linger.   Buying ceramics here is obviously a good idea (most artisans will ship purchases overseas), and Laura Morelli, author of one of my favorite books, Made in Italy: A Shopper's Guide to Italy's Best Artisanal Traditions from Murano Glass to Ceramic, Jewelry, Leather Goods, and More, wrote a very helpful piece for Italy Magazine with some good tips: 'Best of Sicily: Shopping for Ceramics in Caltagirone.'  I found some great dinner plates and a large serving bowl at Sammartino e Delfino Ceramiche Artistiche (via Roma, 32).  The work here stood out, to me, and seemed a cut above most of the other shops.  Artisans Mila and Antonio are very committed to, and have a great passion for, the ancient ceramic tradition, and they initially began working in a tile factory.  Later they made tiles for kitchens and bathrooms and sold them themselves all over Sicily.  In 1985 they opened a small laboratory and decorated ceramic tiles and stained glass windows by hand.  They bought a building in 2001 that was formerly a palace dating back to the 1700s and this became their workshop and store.  Antonio is a ceramics technician and makes the shop's exclusive enamel himself, while Mila is the artist and merchant.  Their daughter, Desirèe, has also joined them in the venture and she specializes in the Testa di Moro (see 'Head of the Moor' entry below).  




























Carts.  The tradition of painted wooden carts is dying out in Sicily but it's still possible you'll come across one while there.  The festive looking carts, which are pulled by mules or horses, date back to the 1800s, and they can be quite elaborate.  John Keahey, in Seeking Sicily, refers to a book written by Marcella Croce and Moira Harris, History on the Road: The Painted Carts of Sicily (my parents met Marcella in Palermo when they visited there years ago), and in it the authors note that the carts differ from one part of the island to another, based on their function and the type of environment in which they were used.  Keahey adds that "carts that hauled salt around the western Sicilian port of Trapani had higher wheels and did not have decorative iron axles because of the salty water they drove through.  Other carts were named by type: the tirraloru carried sand, gravel, or dirt.  The vinarulo hauled grapes or wine barrels; the frumentaru hauled wheat."  The style of painting on the carts differed also: in the eastern part of the island paintings are framed in squares, and in the western half of the island they appear in trapezoidal panels.  Additionally, as with the chivalric stories told in puppet shows (see my Palermo post under the Opera dei Pupi, the marionette puppet theater), some of these stories were so popular they were depicted on Sicilian carts.  Vincent Cronin, in The Golden Honeycomb (below), adds that the carts vary greatly in the extent of their decoration, but the most elaborate "have carvings on wheels, shafts, sides, front and back, and are painted all over in crude colors traditional and unvarying: red, yellow, blue, and green to symbolize Sicily's oranges, sun, sea, and grass.  Even if you don't see any carts in use they may be found at the Museo Etnografico Siciliano Giuseppe Pitrè, in Palermo.  This little-visited museum dedicated to Sicilian folklore was established in 1909 and features an array of objects that were once common in the ordinary lives of Sicilians.  In a nod to the charming tradition of painted carts, designers Dolce & Gabbana introduced a 'Sicily is My Love' espresso maker in partnership with Smeg in 2019.  It was exclusively offered by Neiman Marcus (for $1,500) and was most definitely the most festive and brightly colored espresso maker ever.  According to an article in The New York Times Magazine -- 'A Sicilian Slice' by Horacio Silva, 25 September, 2005 -- Dolce & Gabbana "is as synoymous with Sicily as old ladies in veils and young Romeos on scooters.  Since founding the label in 1985, the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have mined the island for inspiration with the zeal of latter-day Viscontis [referring to the director of the film version of 'The Leopard,' Luchino Visconti]..."We love Sicily," says Dolce, a native Sicilian.  "It is the perfect place to just relax -- eat, read and not worry about the stress of work.  And we always come back with so many ideas.  It is very magical."    

Cuisine.  To quote again from Matthew Fort's Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: "If ever there was a country whose history was written in its food, it was Sicily, in the methods of cooking, ingredients, finished dishes, even in agricultural techniques.  This gave an extraordinary richness to the texture as well as the range of Sicilian food.  History was woven through the fabric of the Sicilian kitchen.  Food was - is -- the history of the island."  Visitors to Sicily quickly discover that the island's cuisine bares only a small resemblance to the foods found elsewhere in Italy, so to avoid disappointment at not finding bolognese sauce, polenta, panettone, parmigiana, gorgonzola, or recognizable pasta shapes, it's wise (and fun) to read up in advance about what you'll find (and regarding pasta shapes, Mary Taylor Simeti, in a chapter in Pomp and Sustenance, shares a partial list of pasta shapes compiled in the 19th century, and most of them are completely unfamiliar: ciazzisuotti, scivulietti, cavatieddi, gnucchitti, taccuna, melinfanti, filatieddi, pastarattedda, etc.).  It's also especially helpful to know the names of the types of eating places you'll encounter in Sicily. Some of these are also found on the mainland and  include panineriesalumeriealimentaricrespellerierosticcerietrattorieosterieristoranti, bars, caffes, tavole caldasgelateriechioschi (this last refers to beverage kiosks, which have been a tradition in Sicily since the late 1800s), etc.  Rick Steves' Sicily guide provides a fairly thorough primer on eating out and an overview of Sicilian food.  Writer Francine Prose has noted that the secret of Sicilian food is all in the ingredients, of excellent quality, very fresh, prepared with no fuss, but with the maximum personal style.  "The Sicilian culinary palette, the vocabulary of its kitchen is -- as any Sicilian cook will tell you -- a relatively limited one.  Olive oil, garlic, flour, eggs, ricotta, fish on the coast, meat inland.  But every cook prepared every one of those same dishes just a little differently so that no two tomato sauces are the same, one cook's pasta con sarde (that sublime, uniquely Sicilian concoction of sardines, pine nuts, raisins, fennel, and bread crumbs) will never be mistaken for another's."

Like Matthew Fort, John Keahy also has some good words of advice for culinary travelers: "In rural Sicily, pointing your car in just about any direction and going for it reaps wondrous rewards.  You can find small villages that suddenly appear on hillsides or hilltops and possess perhaps a handful of streets and one, maybe two, local restaurants that almost never see a tourist.  There might not even be a menu; guests are served whatever is being prepared that day...They are everywhere in Sicily.  You just have to search them out.  Most of the time, you won't be disappointed."    

Among the iconic culinary specialties of Sicily is caponata, which seems to be made many different ways, with or without celery or tomatoes, and pasta (about which it's said that "there are more pasta dishes than there are names for babies"); but perhaps the most iconic specialty is cannoli (plural) or cannolo (singular).  You may also see the Sicilian names displayed (cannolu for the plural and canola for the singular).   The words derive from the Italian for cane or tube but the dessert as we know it was created by the Arabs.  Before I went to Sicily I felt that cannoli were sweets I could easily pass by, but now I find that I crave them incredibly.  Thank God I live not far from the Arthur Avenue neighborhood in the Bronx, where I can get my fix at Madonia Bakery.  No matter where you try them, always get the shells filled on the spot or they'll be soggy and you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.  A bakery that sells pre-filled cannoli is not reputable.  

In my first post on Sicily, I recommended a number of books specifically devoted to Sicilian cuisine, but there are a few others that include chapters on Sicily.   In Lidia's Italy (Knopf, 2007) Lidia Bastianich writes that "Sicily has the climate of North Africa.  The sun in summer is relentless and gives Sicilian produce an intensity of flavor that is not found in the north of Italy.  The tomatoes are sweeter, the oil is more deeply flavored, the fennel has more licorice, capers are nuttier, and the anchovies and sea urchins taste more of the sea."  I completely agree with her assessment.  Pasta Pane Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy's Food Culture by Matt Goulding (HarperWave, 2018) is one edition in a great series by Goulding, co-founder of the fabulous Roads & Kingdoms, and Anthony Bourdain.  Goulding writes that "a road trip around the island will leave you love struck for Sicilia," but he devotes the Sicily chapter mostly to Palermo and recommends a number of good places to eat.  He also interviews Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of the city, and Nicoletta and Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the duchess and duke of Palma (mentioned in several of my previous posts).  Not in the book, but on a list of travel tips for Sicily, Goulding reminds visitors to "Keep it casual: there are chefs doing interesting, creative things with the superlative raw materials of the island, but the best food of Sicily, lie the best food of Italy, isn't to be found in restaurants with Riedel stemware and Michelin pedigrees.  The best food we ate -- grilled spring onions wrapped in pancetta, pasta alla norma, fried risotto balls -- were found at inexpensive bars and trattorie across the island.  Signs of a potentially amazing Sicilian restaurant: no tablecloths, no walls, no menus."   Micol Negrin's Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking (Potter, 2002) also features a chapter on Sicily, and she writes, "There is something magical about Sicily.  Maybe it's the volcanoes, Etna and Stromboli and a handful of smaller ones, forever threatening eruption, making every day seem like a gift...Whatever it is, Sicily's magic extends to its food, to its Baroque concoctions of pasta, its monumental seafood creations, its exuberant almond-laced pastries, it sweet, potent wines that taste like a distillation of the Sicilian sun."  (Note that the book's cover photo is of a Sicilian dish, Twice-Cooked Swordfish in Tomato, Pine Nut, and Caper Sauce.)  Also in my first post I singled out the word monzù in Mary Taylor Simeti's Pomp and Sustenance.  As a reminder, the word refers to (mostly) Sicilian chefs who were sent to France in the late 18th century for training in French cooking or who were trained under a French chef sent from Paris - it's a Neapolitan corruption of monsieur and became a mark of prestige among master chefs in southern Italy, Naples, and Sicily.  Another great description of the word appeared in an article by Gully Wells in Condé Nast Traveler, 'The Sicilian Syndrome': "The reign of the monzù lasted as long as the Sicilian aristocracy could afford their palaces in town and their country estates, where they lived and entertained in unbelievably grand style.  By the time World War II came along, the game was pretty well up, and most families were forced to scale way down, seriously cut way back, and say au revoir to their fabled chefs."      
  
In his fascinating book Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (Atria, 2010), John Dickie opines that "Sicily probably has the most distinctive cuisine in Italy.  In a world increasingly habituated to the so-called Mediteranean diet, there is still something unpredictable and lingeringly strange about what Sicilians eat.  To eat in Sicily is to appreciate the dizzying variety in Italian food, and to understand why the expression "La cucina italiana non esiste" -- "Italian food does not exist" -- has become a truism."  Dickie's chapter 'Palermo, 1154' is especially good reading, and for further culinary reading, here are some articles from my files that I've enjoyed and recommend (and again, a number of my favorites I cannot find online, unfortunately):  'Honor and Onions: An American Actor Takes His Grandfather's Recipes Back Home to Sicily - and a Whole Town Celebrates' by Vincent Schiavelli (Saveur, 2007); 'La Dolce Vita, Sicilian Style' by R. W. Apple, Jr. (The New York Times, 22 December, 1999); 'The Empire of Ice Cream' by Mary Taylor Simeti (Saveur, 2007);  'Couscous Crossroads' by Gail Simmons (Saudi Aramco World, January/February 2011); 'Soul of Sicily' special feature by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Dana Bowen, and Nick Malgieri (Saveur, 2011); 'La Dolce Sicilia' by Andrea di Robilant (Departures, 2011); and 'Fruit as Red as Fire' by David Karp (Saveur, 2000). 

Whatever you eat when you're in Sicily, arricriatevi! (enjoy!)

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Mount Etna.  This active volcano, the largest in Europe, is on the eastern side of Sicily but it can be seen from points much further west.  When my husband and I drove from Palermo to Taormina, the mid-September day was warm and sunny but after about an hour the sky filled with some clouds.  A little while later, the clouds moved on and we were stunned to then see the mass of Etna in the distance -- we hadn't expected to see it so soon, but there it was.  At its highest elevation, Etna is 10,900 feet, and the area around it has become quite a magnet for growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables in the volcanic soil, and there are lots of wineries to visit, good places to eat, and agriturismi (farm stay) accommodations.   For further reading: 'In Sicily, a Volcano's Dangerous Allure' by Danielle Pergament (The New York Times, 28 August, 2016) and 'At Home on Etna's Fiery Slopes' by Mary Taylor Simeti (The New York Times Magazine, 15 May, 1994), and 'A New Scene is Bubbling Up on Sicily - In the Shadow of an Active Volcano' by Lee Marshall (Travel + Leisure, November 2020).  

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Films.  I always encourage travelers who are planning trips to have several 'Dinner and a Movie' nights as part of immersing themselves in the destination.  There is no shortage of Sicilian cookbooks to consult to make a meal (my first post on Sicily mentions a number of them), and there are movies galore, too, which either feature Sicilian characters or at least some scenes that were shot on the island, including: 'The Art of Getting Along,' 'The Big Blue,' 'Cinema Paradiso,' 'Conversazione su Tiresia,' 'Deadline,' 'Der bunte Traum,' 'Divorzio all'Italiana,' 'Don Juan in Sicily,'  'Flo Rounds a Corner,' 'Il Gattopardo,' 'The Godfather' (some scenes from all three films), 'Il Postino' (filmed on Procida in the gulf of Naples and on Salina, an Aeolian Island off the north coast of Sicily), 'Island,' 'Johnny Stecchino,' 'L'Avventura,' 'Man nennt es Amore,' 'Mighty Aphrodite,' 'Ocean's Twelve,' 'Popcorn e Patatine,' 'Sicilia di Sabbia,' 'The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro,' 'Strasera Laura,' 'Tempestuous Love,' 'La Terra Trema,' 'Tini: The New Life of Violetta,'  and 'Un Amore di Gide.'  Additionally, there are nearly 40 episodes in the 'Il Commissario Montalbano' tv series (based on the books by Andrea Camilleri), and the late, great Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode in Sicily in 2005 for his show 'No Reservations,' and there is an episode of 'Cake Boss' devoted to cassata, cheesecakes and crates of wine (2010).      

Florio Family.  I neglected to mention the Florio family in my Palermo post, but later I read The Florios of Sicily: A Novel by Stefania Auci (HarperVia, 2020) so I'm including it here as the family's fame did extend beyond Palermo, notably in Marsala (in the province of Trapani), where the fortified wine of the same name has been made since the late 1700s.  Published as I leoni di Sicilia in 2019, the book was the bestselling novel of the year in Italy, and I highly recommend it.  Each chapter is named for a significant item in the lives of the family -- Spices, Silk, Bark, Sulfur, Lace, Tuna, and Sand -- and the Sicilian proverbs that accompany each relate in some way to what occurs in the chapter.  Among these are Cu manìa 'un pinìa (Those who roll up their sleeves don't endure), a reference to the fact that only laborers roll their sleeves up and the men in the Florio family, who started out in Palermo opening an aromateria (a spice shop), intend to succeed.  The Florios arrived in Sicily in 1799 from Calabria, a fact that hindered their acceptance into society.  In part two (1810 to 1820), Vincenzo Florio notes that Sicilians were divided: Palermo hated Messina, Trapani hated Palermo, and Catania looked out for itself.  "They could boast the oldest parliament in the world but didn't know what to do with it, as they had amply proved.  They were united on just one thing: a loathing for everything "beyond the lighthouse," beyond the Strait of Messina."  Author Auci expresses in her Acknowledgments that "The historical facts that concern the Florios are fully knowable and described in dozens of books, and it is on these facts that my plot hinges.  Where knowledge was lacking, inventiveness and workable imagination came in: in other words, the novel came in.  The desire to to justice to a family of extraordinary people who, for better or worse, marked an era." Production of Florio marsala began in 1833 and it grew to become the biggest competitor of the English companies (Ingham and Whitaker among them) that had been producing marsala since 1773.   Marsala, which earned its Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) designation in 1969 and was the first in Sicily, comes in both dry and sweet versions.  Wine Folly authors Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack say that "if you find a bottle that's not from Sicily, it should not be trusted!"  In 1924, Florio was acquired by Cinzano and in 2001 it became part of ILLVA Saronno Holding.        

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke (Thorndike Press, 2019).  I only recently learned of this book or I would have included it in my very first post on Sicily.  Locke is an African-American who was studying in Florence while in college and where she met her future husband, Saro.  But instead of her story turning into one of moving to Sicily and living happy days, it's heartbreaking -- Saro is diagnosed with cancer and he passes away early on in the book.  Yet  Locke and her young daughter, Zoela, manage to overcome their deep sadness, and I won't spoil the rest of the story except to say that after not being initially accepted into Saro's family (his parents did not attend their wedding), Locke is embraced by family members and neighbors in the village of Aliminusa --  when her parents visit to celebrate the procession of Sant'Anna, Signor Shecco tells them that 'Sua figlia è una di noi' (Your daughter is one of us).  Locke also becomes an astute observer of Sicilian ways of life and traditions.  She writes, "The first thing I saw when we turned left on Via Gramsci was a stoic brigade of aging women and widows lined up on a bench along the stone sidewalk.  The widows, as is customary, were dressed in all black.  Of varying heights and girths, they sat in front of Saro's childhood home waiting for us.  They were prepared for mourning.  They had done this before, many times -- for themselves, for family, for neighbors, perhaps since the dawn of time.  Sicilians were accustomed to welcoming home the dead."  And she writes about one of the most defining dish of the island, caponata: "The dish was sweet and savory, quintessentially Sicilian.  Just one mouthful told the island's entire sensuous story: sun, wind, earth, Moorish, and European, it was fantasy brined in reality.  Fragrant and textured, caponata has the color of darkness and the taste of paradise." 

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The Golden Honeycomb.  Yet another book I only found out about recently, by historian Vincent Cronin (originally published in 1954 in England by Rupert Hart-Davis).  Years ago, I'd read Cronin's biography of Napoleon and quite liked his style, so I was prepared to enjoy this as well.  His thesis is that Sicily owes its prevailing pattern of civilization to Daedalus, the mythical (or perhaps not) Greek inventor, architect, and sculptor.  Cronin believes that of all the men who ever lived, those who really excite the imagination are figures that occupied the "twilight world where history and legend meet."  Daedalus, for him, was perhaps the most interesting of all for he's said to be the first artist who ever lived, and the historian who's related the most about him is Diodorus, a Sicilian who lived shortly before the time of Jesus Christ.  Diodorus says Daedalus remained in Sicily for a considerable time, and he completed a number of masterpieces, including a magnificent golden honeycomb, which he gave in offering to Aphrodite of Erice, whose shrine was the most famous in Sicily.  Cronin sets out on a journey around Sicily in search of this golden honeycomb, and he's a most observant traveler.  "Only the shepherds in Sicily are ever alone," he writes.  "The rest of the population are always in company, usually parading the streets or, since the houses are inadequate, sitting at a caffé.  It is a civic life, a life of talk and laughter which always takes place out of doors, and this fact is itself a reflection of the external and extrovert quality of the people.  People in the streets, people continually passing, people talking and laughing and joking -- this is the life of a Sicilian small town."  I won't spoil the end of his quest, but Cronin does conclude that "the golden honeycomb is nothing less than the archetype of all Sicilian art."       

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The Head of the Moor (Testa di Moro). It won't take long before visitors encounter somewhat of a curious decorative tradition, that of ceramic heads.  They are found all over Sicily, though in my experience they are most plentiful in Taormina, and they are actually planters, even though many are not used as such.  There are several folk tales that explain these heads, the most common of which goes that a girl who lived in the Kalsa neighborhood of Palermo was tending to the plants on her balcony when an Arab merchant walked by.  They fell in love, but the girl discovered that he already had a wife and children in his native land.  Her jealousy caused her to think of a way to keep him with her forever, so she cut off his head and used it as a vase to grow a basil plant.  Passersby marveled at how her plant flourished, so they created ceramic heads pots and hoped their plants, too, would thrive.  The tale is about a thousand years old but I've read that the appearance of the heads only became popular fairly recently.  Often, the head of the man is black while the woman is white, which on the surface seems shockingly insensitive; but I don't believe Sicilians see it that way -- the heads are everywhere and are on every kind of souvenir imaginable.  Even Dolce & Gabbana introduced a line featuring the heads and, as with the espresso maker mentioned above under 'Carts,' they also created a large, hand painted ceramic candle holder in the shape of a woman's head.  It, too, was a Neiman's exclusive ($695), and the woman's face is surrounded by pieces of fruit while on her head is a prickly pear cactus.  It's as fanciful as all the ceramic heads found across Sicily.  I took the photos of heads below at the Albergo Bel Soggiorno (details in the Taormina entry), where some of the heads displayed featured both a black man and a black woman, go figure.     























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Jewish History.  Sicily's Arab and Christian history is well known; its Jewish history less so, but before the Jewish population was expelled from the island by the Spanish Inquisition, it was quite large and prosperous.  In Pomp and Sustenance, Mary Taylor Simeti notes that what we know about the Jews at this time is that they wrote and spoke Arabic as well as Hebrew; they were active in commerce, especially with northern Africa; and they "constituted much of the skilled labor that carried on traditions of Arabic craftsmanship in such industries as building and the production of silk and sugar."  (And they apparently were the chief consumers of what little olive oil was then being produced in Sicily).  Simeti goes on to say that there were "two bridges of trade," one to the south and one to the north, and "it is not too far-fetched to hypothesize Sicily as the principal link between the "court cuisine" of twelfth-century Baghdad and Damascus, and the elaborate dishes, many of them very similar to those of the Near East, that appeared on the tables of the Italian Renaissance several centuries later.  It seems possible that traditions that had been imported to Palermo by the Arabs were maintained there by the Jews, and then exported to the north by Genoan and Venetian merchants."  

Authors Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio devote a chapter in their excellent book, The Peoples of Sicily, to Jewish history on the island.   Mendola and Alio confirm that though a number of Jews left Sicily after 1492, perhaps as many as half converted to Catholicism and stayed, like the conversos in Spain (in Sicily these converts were known a neofiti).  Jews who continued to practice Judaism in secret were known as Marranos.  By the 1520s, baptisms and marriages in Sicilian churches located near formerly Jewish communities bear a number of family surnames like de Simone (son of Simon) as well as first names like Isacco, Beniamino, Abramo, and Davide, all of which were formerly rare among Sicilian Christians.  The authors note that "most Sicilians have Jewish ancestors through one line or another."  

Recently, there has been renewed interest in uncovering Jewish history on the island, notably in Palermo, where a new synagogue has found a home in a former Baroque oratory known as Santa Maria del Sabato (Holy Mary of Saturday).  In 'Jews find a New Home in Sicily 500 Years After They Were Forced Out' by Elisabetta Povoledo (The New York Times, 25 April, 2017), a member of Palermo's Jewish community stated that some scholars believe that the name of the oratory might be related to the memory of the celebration of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday -- the oratory is on vicolo Meschita, part of an area once occupied by Palermo's Great Synagogue.  Povoledo notes that there were once 51 Jewish communities in Sicily with Palermo's the largest and most important.  The second largest community, with Europe's oldest mikveh (ritual bath), was on Ortygia, the peninsular centro storico of Siracusa (Ortygia is also where Caravaggio's 'Burial of Saint Lucy' masterpiece is; he came to Sicily in 1608 after escaping from prison on Malta).  It dates from at least the year 660, possibly as early as 535, and authors Mendola and Alio state that Judaism was present on Ortygia "long before the arrival of Christianity on Sicilian shores."  In 'Days of Awe in Siracusa' in the online publication Times of Sicily, writer Gary Duke met Rabbi Stefano Di Mauro, who established the synagogue there in 2008.  "Di Mauro swears though that there are more Jews in Sicily than one suspects and if Sicilians with certain names looked back at their family trees, they’d discover their Jewish past."  Historians say the Inquisition affected at least 35,000 Sicilian Jews, 5,000 of those in Palermo.  The size of the Jewish community in Palermo today is unclear, but it's growing, and efforts have been made to identify historical Jewish sites around the city.  An example that Povoledo mentions in her article is that the street sign for via dei Calderai, named for the metal and coppersmiths who had shops there, is now trilingual, in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic.  However, apparently the Hebrew isn't quite right: the Hebrew letters were simply substituted for the Italian letters but weren't translated.  A few resources for more information are Visit Jewish Italy and The Guide to Jewish Italy by Annie Sacerdoti and photos by Alberto Jona Falco (Rizzoli, 2003; one short chapter on Sicily).    

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Language.  In Seeking Sicily, John Keahy shares that in his quest to learn a little more about the differences between Sicilian dialect and Italian, he was intrigued by the fact that there is no future tense in Sicilian.  He notes this could stem from the Arabic language that, even today, has no future tense.  Modern day Sicilians have adopted Italian, which does use the future tense, as does the English that Sicilian immigrants embraced in the early years of the 20th century.  Alex Caldiero, a folklorist, poet, and university professor who Keahy met, points out that the Sicilian immigrants "were suddenly immersed in a culture that believes you can be anything you want, that you have the power to shape your future...Remember, Sicilians have always been dominated by other cultures; they never had self-determination as a people.  Their blood constantly told them that they have no control over their lives, that everything was controlled by the will of God."  This is a theme that finds its way into many of the short stories by Giovanni Verga, and pre-20th century Sicilians viewed the future as an obligation.  As Caldiero says, "Instead of saying 'I will do it,' they say, 'l’aiâ farsi.' [I have to do it.]  It's all in that one grammatical difference.  Instead of saying "I will sing," it's "I have to sing."  Instead of "I will bring it," it's "I am about to bring it."   

M
Mafia.  Driving from the airport to Palermo visitors will see a red monument, sort-of in the shape of an obelisk, that marks the spot where Judge Giovanni Falcone (and his wife, Francesca Morvillo, and three bodyguards) were blown up in a car in 1992.  This is the Italian equivalent of Americans remembering where they were on the day JFK was assassinated.  Two months later Judge Paolo Borsellino, along with five police officers, were also murdered.  The airport in Palermo, formerly called Punta Raisi, was renamed Falcone Borsellino in honor of these two very brave men who came closer than anyone since Mussolini to break up the mafia (see 'Il Traditore' -- The Traitor -- for an excellent film version of Falcone and his relationship with Tommaso Buscetta, the first Sicilian mafia boss who became a pentito, repentant).     

Horatio Clare, editor of Sicily: Through Writers' Eyes (see below under 'S'), notes that the word mafia is an international term today, and can refer to Russian, Balkan, American, and Mexican organized crime, as well as other Italian groups like the n'dranghetta of Calabria and the Camora of Naples.  "But in the history of crime," he writes, "there has been nothing to compare with the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra...It is necessary for any non-Italian to abandon fundamental misconceptions before considering the question of the mafia.  Put aside the dark-eyed Hollywood heroes who have done so much to glamorise the term...To face the mafia is to face the unholy trinity of human life: violence, fear and malign power.  To follow its rise and prospering is to study the genesis and processes of evil.  As we know, as we have always known, the most frightening thing about evil is the way it insinuates itself into normal life."  It would be a mistake, however, to place too much emphasis on the mafia today in Sicily. Though the mafia is not entirely gone, it is not nearly as powerful or as prevalent as it once was, and at any rate Sicilians are really not interested in talking about it; it's become a tired topic.  Yet, I think it's important to have a fundamental understanding about it because the mafia, at least in its early existence, is a uniquely Sicilian concept.     

Historically, the mafia has been more entrenched in the western half of Sicily.  The town of Corleone, made internationally famous from The Godfather book and movie (even though the movie was not filmed there), is about 35 miles south of Palermo, in western Sicily, and it was the seat of Sicilian organized crime for most of the 20th century.  Corleone is, since 2000, the home of CIDMA (Centro Internazionale di Documentazione sulle Mafie e del Movimento Antimafia), the Anti-Mafia Museum (reservations must be made online or by contacting the office).  Writer Norman Lewis, whose first wife was the daughter of a mafioso, made a reference to the difference between western and eastern Sicily in his outstanding book The Honoured Society (originally published in 1964; Eland Publishing introduced  an edition in 2003; subscribers to The New Yorker may read three excerpts online from the 8th, 15th, and 22nd of February, 1964).  The book focuses on the fact that during the Second World War, Mussolini came very close to destroying the mafia, but when the U.S. Army was in Sicily it unwittingly restored the mafia's power.  Lewis introduces readers to the mafioso Don Calogero Vizzini, who had "dedicated the whole of his life to what the mafia calls 'winning respect,' and his prestige was now enormous.  He had been nicknamed by the Allies 'General mafia.'  Whether or not he was responsible for American strategy in western Sicily, his followers certainly gave him the credit for it, and no one could deny that the mafia had most efficiently cleared all obstacles in the path of the American advance, while in the east the British and Canadians were still fighting their way round the slopes of Etna and it was to be three more weeks before they reached their goal at Messina."  

It seems no one has definitively named an exact time when the mafia began, but as early as 1610, when British traveler George Sandys visited Sicily, he wrote that the interior of the island was dangerous and most inhospitable to strangers, and that robbing and murders were not uncommon.  Allan Langdale, in Palermo: Travels in the City of Happiness, notes that when Scottish author Patrick Brydone traveled throughout Sicily in 1770, he was told about a particular group of bandits: "He says that in some circumstances these bandits (banditti) are the most respectable people on the island; and have by much the highest and most romantic notions of what they call their point of honour.  That, however criminal they may be with regard to society in general, yet, with respect to one another, and to every person to whom they have once professed it, they have ever maintained the most unshakable fidelity.  The magistrates have often been obliged to protect them, and even pay them court, as they are known to be perfectly determined, and desperate; and so extremely vindictive, that they will certainly put any person to death, who has ever given them just cause of provocation." The violence of the banditti, Langdale notes, is balanced by their omertà, their total devotion to each other and their code of honor.   

When Garibaldi and his volunteers began the Spedizione dei Mille (Expedition of the Thousand), in Marsala in 1860, which was the first event of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy), the countryside of western Sicily lent itself perfectly to the development of an organized criminal class that at any rate had been around centuries before.  "The mafiosi helped Garibaldi and Garibaldi helped the mafiosi," notes Langdale, and when Garibaldi left, the mafia capi (heads), many of whom had been managers of the noble estates, easily took advantage of the vacuum of power left by the absence of any kind of authority.  Langdale observes that "like the devil, the most ingenious thing the mafia ever did was convince people it didn't exist."  Well into the 20th century, many people, including Sicilians, didn't believe the mafia was real.  Rather, it was an invention of foreigners and northern Italians who wanted to insult Sicilians.  This is why, according to Langdale, the mafia preferred the 'lupara bianca,' the 'white shotgun' assassination, a murder for which a body is never found, leading one to wonder if the murder ever happened.  Lastly, Langdale writes, "There's a story that may or may not be true, or, most likely, may be partly true," and this is that when the Allies were planning on the invasion of Sicily in 1943, the American military contacted the New York mobster Lucy Luciano and made a deal: when General Patton and his troops landed on the 9th of July, they need to move swiftly to Palermo, so Luciano was asked to insure this would be the case. Luciano united the mafiosi of western Sicily to run the Fascists out ahead of the invasion, and Patton's army met no resistance en route to Palermo, where Patton was hailed as a liberator (even though Allied planes had just bombed the port and the historic core of the city).  As with Garibaldi, when the Americans left they had to reward those who had helped them, so the mafia became as powerful as it had ever been as corrupt officials filled the power vacuum left behind by the defeated Fascists.  The mafia went on to deliver votes to politicians, who in return delivered protection from prosecution as well as promises for all kinds of government projects the mafia could exploit.             

Other works to read on this topic include Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic  by Alexander Stille (Vintage, 1996) as well as those I mentioned in my first Sicily post: Peter Robb's excellent and absorbing Midnight in Sicily (ostensibly focused on the mafia but about so much more; "In the deep sea of Sicily, things go on changing and things go on staying the same" Robb astutely notes) and the novels of Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who excels at pointing out to his readers where and how to see the mafia.  However, Robb notes in his book that by 1961, Sciascia's picture of the mafia as an essentially rural force was less true.  "By the end of the fifties, the mafia's centre of gravity had shifted to the cities and Cosa Nostra was heavily into construction and real estate...The more Sciascia became known as an authority on Sicily and the mafia, the more out of touch he became with what the mafia was becoming in that time of rapid change."  Still, again as Robb points out, Sciascia's The Day of the Owl was the first Italian novel, published in 1961, to feature the mafia as its subject, and the book has been taught in Italian schools as a classic.  I very much recommend reading it, as well as any of Sciascia's other books.  Robb adds that "the New York Review briefly praised Leonardo Sciascia as the exponent of a brilliant and haunting crime fiction in which what matters is not so much the crime as the danger of knowing anything about it".  

Lastly, if you see the words 'addio pizzo' on signs or stickers, it refers to a 'denounce the pizzo' campaign by an organization of the same name, Addio Pizzo, which opposes Cosa Nostra kickbacks.  Browse its website for tours, activities, accommodations, etc. that refuse to pay the mafia bribe.  

MandranovaAzienda Agricola Mandranova is another countryside inn that I think was my most favorite accommodation, though I wasn't so sure about that when we pulled off the main road onto the estate.  It seemed to me that the property was too close to the road and that it would be noisy, but the buildings that comprise the estate -- the casale (the main house), the restored train station, and a palmento -- are set back quite far from the road in a garden of palm trees.  It was perfectly quiet, wonderful, relaxing, and beautiful in every way.  All of the 15 guest rooms are unique, some with original family furnishings, and all have fine quality linens and nicely appointed bathrooms.  We stayed in the casale and when we opened the heavy wooden door to our room the first thing we saw was a carafe of chilled water waiting for us, which was most welcome.  The room was spacious, pretty, and a bit elegant, with a large, wooden armoire, majolica floor, windows on two sides, and a really comfy bed.  The bathroom was fairly large and the tiled stall had a great rainfall shower head.  There are also two villas available for rent on the property.  The pool was in ancient times a gebbia, used for irrigation, and as it's set on a small hill there are views out over the estate, with all its olive trees, and to the sea, which is just minutes away.  Breakfast, which is included in the rate, is an elaborate spread, perhaps the best I've ever experienced at an inn; it included an assortment of breads, freshly squeezed juices, olives, yogurt, tomatoes, panna cotta with fruit, assorted baked tarts, slices of kiwi, nectarines, prickly pear, watermelon and other melons, grapes, jams, coffee, and tea.  Dinner, which is extra, is really special: clearly Mandranova's owners, Silvia and Giuseppe, believe that a memorable meal consists not only of quality ingredients and finesse in the kitchen but also of good conversation and the happy sparks that occur when guests meet other guests.  We were all assigned seats at the large indoor table, and couples were seated across from one another.  At first we chatted with the guests sitting next to us but it didn't take long to meet the guests seated further down the table.  The food was exceptional and the wines continued to flow.  After many hours, we walked outside onto the stone terrace and some of the trees were spotlit at their bases and there were lanterns placed just so and it was absolutely magical.  It was a beautiful, charming evening.  Madranova's location turned out to be serendipitous for me as it is five minutes from the town of Palma di Montechiaro, founded in 1637 by an ancestor of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who inherited it.  As the main reason for this Sicily trip was to take a cooking class taught by Lampedusa's daughter-in-law, in Palermo, it seemed I was destined to stay here.  I really didn't want to leave.  Happily, I bought some Mandranova olive oil, which is the very best souvenir of this special place.  At the reception there are single oils in glass bottles, tins, and boxes (as well as a tasting box with 4 small tins) and marmalades, pistachio pesto, and almonds.  I wish I'd taken more photos but I was too busy enjoying every inch of the inn, both inside and outside.  The two photos below are of seating areas just outside the casale and of a public room available to guests inside the casale.                










Messina
.  I include Messina here not because I visited the town (though I'd very much like to) but because of its key geographic location, across the Strait of Messina from Reggio di Calabria on the mainland, and because of its symbolic importance in Greek mythology.  In Homer's Odyssey, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis lived at opposite ends of the Strait of Messina, making it quite dangerous (and deadly in the case of six of Homer's shipmates) to cross (the waters in the Strait are said to be rather whirlpool-like).  The tale is the source of our modern day idioms, "to choose the lesser of two evils" or "to be between a rock and a hard place."  In more modern times, as recently as 2012 and then 2016, a bridge was to be constructed between Messina and Reggio, which would connect Sicily to the Italian mainland.  Not only would the bridge help facilitate trade between northern and southern Europe, it would have an enormous psychological impact on Sicilians.  The bridge project, managed by the Stretto di Messina company, was introduced as the world's biggest structure, surpassing all other bridges, and was to cost three billion euros.  Building a bridge, even across the narrowest point, less than two miles wide, is a true technical challenge, with six (or twelve) vehicle lanes and two railway tracks, not to mention that the location is in a highly seismic region that's also quite windy.  In his book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, Robert Camuto writes that for more than two thousand years, emperors, kings, and politicians have talked about bridging the Strait, but "now it seems doubtful that Sicily will survive the twenty-first century -- or even another decade -- as its own continente."  Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi steamrolled the project, and said the bridge "will give Sicilians 100 percent status as Italian citizens," a comment Camuto feels is "a bizarre statement implying that Sicilians have less than whole status."  Yet by now you've likely assumed the bridge hasn't been built, and indeed it hasn't.  Camuto found that polls said Sicilians were in favor of a bridge, "though I imagine many are caught in a Sicilian paradox: being for the bridge as long as it is not actually constructed in their lifetimes.   I have yet to find one Sicilian who wants the thing built."  In the chapter 'A Bridge Too Close,' Camuto introduces a Messina wine producer, Salvatore Geraci, in a busy bar: "The place had the kind of pulse you can only find in Italian cafes: fueled by the beat of pop radio in the background, the hissing and droning of the espresso machine, and the clinking of porcelain and metal.  In an instant, I saw Salvatore in his element, moving to the beat.  He was Sicilian.  He was worldly.  He was continental.  As long as the continent kept its distance."  Geraci expressed to Camuto what is the most fundamental reason to oppose the bridge: 'Meglio che La Sicilia resta isolate' (Better that Sicily stay apart).                

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Noto. The original Noto Antica was destroyed by a massive earthquake (as well as nearly all of southeastern Sicily) in January of 1693.  Instead of rebuilding the town in the same spot, it was decided to start fresh in a location about eight miles to the south.  This clean slate presented both an architectural and urban planning opportunity, and a master plan was created for the new Noto, uncommon in Sicily at the time. The plan was essentially a grid and featured wide, straight streets, imposing arches, and large, open squares, and of all the towns in Sicily it's the most uniform in period and style.  Over time, Noto started crumbling, literally, and by the 1990s many of the town's buildings were covered in scaffolding.  In 1996, the cupola of the San Nicolò Cathedral crashed to the ground.  Thanks to funding from the European Union in the early 2000s, buildings were beautifully restored, and as a result, Noto is now the capital of Sicilian Baroque.  The architects of this style have been referred to as "stone-gardeners" and they were interested in much more than a building's façade: entryways, staircases, arches, courtyards, loggias, and real gardens were all used to display the wealth of the inhabitants.  In 'Basking in the Baroque' from the Italian magazine Gambero Rosso, Noto chef Corrado Assenza shared that "Baroque architecture glorified the ruling class and was meant to stupefy and fascinate ordinary people."  This very wild and bold style is not to everyone's taste, but I find it fascinating, and in 2001 UNESCO added the eight towns of the 'Val di Noto Baroque' to its World Heritage list (the other seven towns are Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa, and Scicli).  Noto itself may be too spiffed up for some, but I like it, and it has long been considered the capital of the Baroque.  The authors of Magnificent Interiors of Sicily: Val di Noto (a gem of a book described below) write that Noto is now the cradle of travelers "looking for art, culture, and authentic traditions.  They are also looking for an active and contemporary social scene to enjoy themselves while seeped in the Sicilian way of life."  






















We drove to Noto for the day from Baglio Occhipinti (mentioned above) but in retrospect I wish we'd also spent at least one night in town, and if we had it would be at Seven Rooms Villadorata.  This very special inn opened in 2008 and is located in a dedicated wing of the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata, named after the Principe di Villadorata (Giacomo Nicolaci, whose wealth came from tuna fishing) and the palace was completed in 1737.  Cristina Summa, previously a designer and hotelier in Torino, bought the wing of the palace when it was up for sale, and she is the owner and manager of 7 Rooms; she also lives in the palace with her husband and children.  Seven Rooms is, to again quote from Magnificent Interiors of Sicily: Val di Noto, "one of the most beautiful residences in all of Sicily" and "it is no coincidence that it is the most photographed building in Noto.  The exceptional series of balconies, supported by mythological creatures carved in stone, including hippogriffs, sphinxes,  mermaids, and winged horses are astonishing."  The interior of the boutique B&B is rather the complete opposite of the Baroque exterior, with its soothing, monochrome colors and uncluttered decor.  I showed up with my husband, unannounced, and we were given a fairly extensive tour.  The overall feel is one of being a guest in someone's (very nice) private home.  It's luxurious, but in the best way, comfortably so, not at all stuffy.  Each of the seven guest rooms (one is a suite) is named after the seven winds of Sicily, and each is a quiet little world unto itself.  I felt I was enveloped in a very calm and welcoming place, meant for utter relaxation, yet right in the center of Noto.  My impression was that every single detail had been carefully considered.  Even if you don't stay at Seven Rooms, I recommend stepping into the pretty reception area (the vine-covered entrance is in a far corner of the palace's courtyard), where the products of the Officine Villadorata -- handcrafted soaps, body oil, and liquid soap -- are for sale.  The original Nicolaci estate produced almonds, lemons, oranges, prickly pears, and olive oil, so the establishment of the Officine continues this agricultural tradition.  All the products feature raw materials from Sicily and from the nearby Aeolian islands of Lipari, Salina, and Stromboli, and the scents are really pure and appealing.  The soaps are nicely packaged in heavy colored paper and wrapped with matching twine and metal seals, and they make great gifts (for yourself or others) as they're small and pack easily. All the products are made with Orti Villadorata extra virgin olive oil, and there is an online shop as well.  Perhaps not entirely content with one distinctive inn, Cristina Summa also established Country House Villadorata, about ten minutes outside of Noto.  This eco-friendly, 28-acre property is a working farm, with olive, almond, and citrus trees; it's more casual than 7 Rooms but is still quite stylish.  Note that children under 14 are not permitted at either property.     

We had a great, great lunch at Anche Gli Angeli ('Even the Angels,' via Arnaldo da Brescia, 20), which is more of a concept store that just happens to have a really good restaurant inside the pretty building (there is also a wine bar and a shop with quality Sicilian items and books).  The grilled pulpo, Etna salad (tomatoes, capers, red onion, ricotta salata, and basil) and pasta with vongole and pistachios were excellent and memorable.  Of course we stopped in at Caffé Sicilia, home of the famous creations of pastry chef Corrado Assenza, the second Italian to be featured on the 'Chef's Table' series by Netflix (after chef Massimo Bottura of Modena).  Food writer, cookbook author, and one of my most favorite people, Faith Willinger, is hugely responsible for Assenza being the subject of a 'Chef's Table' episode, and if you've seen it you've already heard what sets Assenza apart from others in the field.  Our visit was entirely too rushed, and while I did have a quite delicious Basilico and Zafferano gelato (basil and saffron, what a combo!), I think I did not sample the best of what Assenza creates.  It's clear a return visit is in order!

Aside from leisurely walking around Noto (also known as "the Garden in Stone"), I recommend visiting the Palazzo Castelluccio, a beautifully restored palace that has only been open to the public since 2017.  The palace was built in 1782, after the earthquake, by the Marquis di Lorenzo del Castelluccio, one of the oldest families in Noto.  The palazzo was in bad shape when it was purchased in 2011 by French journalist, filmmaker, and collector Jean-Louis Remilleux -- it had been abandoned since the 1970s, when the last marchese had passed away.  Guided tours are the only way to visit the palazzo (reservations are recommended), and though some rooms are off-limits (reserved for Remilleux), the tours are extensive and include a lot of indoor and outdoor spaces.  Walking through the meticulously renovated rooms reveals a thorough peek into how Noto's nobility once lived.  A special feature is the original Sicilian ceramic tile floors, which were perfectly preserved; many of the Sicilian and Neapolitan pieces of baroque furniture are from Remilleux's personal collection.  "Antiques are not dead things," Remilleux said in an interview with AD in December 2014, "They have a lot to teach us about how we lived and thought."  Photos of the palazzo's interior were featured in AD in 2017, in a piece by Mitchell Owens (Remilleux was not identified as the owner).  There are other palaces to visit in Noto, but Remilleux confirms that "not one palazzo in Noto is intact like this."  The photo below is of the palazzo's outdoor terrace. 


        




The book I mentioned above, Magnificent Interiors  of Sicily: Val di Noto with text by Samuele Mazza and Richard Engel and photos by Matteo Aquila (Rizzoli, 2019), really makes you want to plan a trip as soon as possible.  Country homes, farms, and villas are featured, all of which were restored in a successful combination of tradition and innovation.  The authors explain that "this book is a story told less with words than through a visual and aesthetic experience.  It is a book that wants to express through images sensations that are hard to put into words, if not emerging oneself completely in the atmosphere."  There are good suggestions on what to see and visit at the back of the book.  In addition to this splendid tome, a few good articles to read are 'Sicily Old & New' by John Seabrook (Travel + Leisure, August 2009; despite the title of the article, the author focuses exclusively on the southeastern corner of the island -- he describes the landscape as "neither European nor African, but something in between);  'Defying Nature With Exuberant Design' by Celestine Bohlen (The New York Times, 2 June, 2013); 'Noto' by Pilar Guzman (Condé Nast Traveler, June/July 2016); 'The Baroque Side of Sicily' by Frederika Randall (The New York Times, 15 June, 2003); and  'Seduced by Sicily' by Lauren Mechling, about the Val di Noto (Departures, 2019 -- I can't find this online, which seems odd to me, but Mechling writes that the Noto Valley "has become a destination for in-the-know Europeans and the American magazine editors who travel like them" and she and her husband visited Noto and Ragusa Ibla; she also describes Seven Rooms Villadorata as "think John Derian by way of old-world Italy," and at Duomo, in Ragusa Ibla, she had what was "hands-down the best meal of our lives" at the Michelin-starred restaurant of Sicily's most celebrated chef, Ciccio Sultano).

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Piana degli Albanesi.  The name of this small, mountain town derives from its founding by Christian Albanian immigrants who were fleeing the Ottomans in the 15th century.  Arbërisht, a pre-Ottoman Albanian that is from the Tosk dialect of southern Albania, is still spoken here, and signage in many spots are in both Albanian and Italian.  Just south of the town is a pretty artificial lake (it provides drinking water for Palermo) and at one of the surrounding mountain passes is the Portella della Ginestra, which at first glance is perhaps an unlikely setting for a tragic event, one that occurred on the first of May, 1947.  On this day, residents of Piana degli Albanesi walked up to the  Portella to meet the villagers of St. Guiseppe Jato, who lived on the other side of the pass, to celebrate international workers day as well as the end of years of Fascism.  But the legendary bandit Salvatore Giuliano and his gang were hiding out behind the rocky peaks at the pass, and they fired indiscriminately at men, women, and children.  Eleven people were killed and thirty-three were wounded.  As Horatio Clare writes in Sicily Through Writers' Eyes (below), "The truth of Giuliano's motives died with him and his murderer, his cousin Gaspare Pisciotta, who was poisoned, probably by the mafia, in the Ucciardone prison.  It seems likely that rightist elements in Sicily's political structure, in collusion with the mafia, convinced Giuliano that he would be striking some sort of definitive blow against the left; 'Boys, the hour of our liberation is at hand,' he is said to have told his men, on receiving his orders in a letter, sent by persons unknown.  Perhaps he thought that the outrage might somehow count towards his own rehabilitation."  A good article by writer Lucy Gordan, in La voce di New York, describes in more detail this infamous event, and she recommends a few worthwhile attractions in Piana degli Albanesi, notably La Casa del Cannolo, the lab and shop of Marco Cuccia, dubbed 'the King of Cannoli.'  

Piazza Armerina.  The reason to come to the town of Piazza Armerina is not for the town itself but for the Villa Romana del Casale, a private villa built by a man of the Roman aristocracy dating from about the year 300.  Norman Lewis writes in In Sicily that, "Those who have had the opportunity to see the Roman mosaics of Piazza Armerina may conclude, as I have done, that there is nothing of the kind to compare with them elsewhere on earth."  Though there is a lot of Roman history in Sicily, not many examples of that history survive due to looting and destruction in later centuries.  The Villa's fairly remote location in the countryside likely helped it avoid plundering, and a landslide in the 1300s that also caused a flood kept it hidden for 600 years.  It was only in the 1930s that a systematic exploration of the Villa began, and the most notable excavations were made between 1950 and 1960.  The floors of the Villa represent the largest collection of Roman floor mosaics ever found in situ, and due to a thick covering of mud from the flood, they were discovered in excellent condition and preserved intact.  Vincent Cronin, in The Golden Honeycomb, observed that "It is an unusual experience to find masterpieces lying on the ground.  For it is at once evident, from the scale, colour and grouping of these pavements, that they are productions of nothing less than unique achievement."  The Villa was named to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 1997 but it doesn't receive nearly the number of visitors as Agrigento.  Scholars believe the decoration of the Villa was done by African craftsmen, and among my favorite mosaics are the 'Great Hunt' and the so-called 'Bikini Girls' in the Chamber of the Ten Maidens.  It's all very much worth adding to an itinerary.  The Villa's website offers a good, complimentary brochure with background information and a visitor's itinerary (click on 'Guides' and select language (Italian, English, or French).    

Planeta.  In Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, Robert Camuto writes in the chapter 'Planet Planeta' that it's impossible to consider Sicilian wine in the 21st century without Planeta.  "That is not to say that Planeta produces the most singularly profound wines from Sicily -- nor, for that matter, the most Sicilian wines.  Yet in the last twenty years, no one has been more effective in showing the world that Sicily and its vines have something important to express."  Planeta's wines are available around the world and the enterprise is very successful, but it remains a closely-knit family business.  Its vineyards are in Capo Milazzo, Etna, Menfi, Menfi, Noto, and Vittoria, and in Menfi, on the southern coast of the island, there is the La Foresteria Planeta resort and restaurant (and there is a Palazzo Planeta in Palermo, which I mentioned in a previous post).  The restaurant welcomes non-guests, and we had a terrific lunch there consisting of a salad with lettuce, green beans, marinated shallots, artichokes, and tomatoes; grilled octopus with chickpeas; fried fish with cipollinata and marinated red onions; a bottle of Planeta rosé 2018; and delicious breads with Planeta olive oil.  I wish time had allowed for a stay at the resort, but the restaurant is most definitely vale la deviazione (worth the detour).  The photo just below is of a pretty centerpiece on a long table in the restaurant - I was told the pieces of ceramic fruit are made nearby - and the others were taken from the terrace of the restaurant. 






    










Poverty.  That Sicily was very poor is well documented.  By the late 1880s, when production of American grain and exports undercut the Sicilian agricultural market, Sicily became even more impoverished than it had been.  Mass emigration to America -- approximately 150,000 Sicilians a year up to 1913 -- brought not only hard working peasants but also those with mafia connections, thus beginning the bond between organized crime in the States and in Sicily.   (As an aside, out of 4.5 million Italians that came to the U.S. between 1800 and 1930, one out of four was Sicilian, according to the Countries and Their Cultures Forum.)  What is far less known is the report of Booker T. Washington, the African-American principal of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute from 1881 until his death in 1915.  Washington visited Europe in 1910 to observe how the lives of the lower classes compared with those of African-Americans, and what he observed in Sicily led him to conclude that "The Negro is not the man farthest down.  The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States in America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily."     
  
Norman Lewis, in The Honored Society, writes of his friend, journalist Marcello Cimino, sadly killed later by the Mafia, who was reporting on the distribution of uncultivated land in Sicily in the late 1940s.  Marcello reminded Lewis that the Sicilian peasantry had at that time lost their capacity for hope: "Between 1951 and 1953, 400,000 Sicilians - more than 10 per cent of the population -- had emigrated.  The majority were working males, and in some areas only old people, women and children were left behind to work the fields."  John Keahy, in Seeking Sicily, references the black-and-white photographs of Enzo Sellerio (1924-2012), a photographer born in Palermo whose work is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photos taken by Sellerio in the 1950s and early 1960s show very few cars, a lot of mule- and horse-drawn carts, elderly women dressed all in black, and children wearing tattered clothing, all of which make Keahy feel that 21st century Sicily is light-years away from mid-20th century Sicily: northern Italy was already well on its way to recovery after the war, but Sicily was literally still digging out of the rubble.  It's perhaps easy for the average 21st century visitor to never know what the island was like for the vast majority of Sicilians.  Keahy shares that he once was on a train south of Naples and he was sitting next to a very well dressed older man on his way to visit his mother in Sicily.  He casually mentioned that he wondered why southern Italians and Sicilians left their villages that today draw tourists by the thousands.  "He held me in a long gaze and said, in precise English, "Well, you can't eat quaint."  As a middle-class American, he said in a kindly way, I could have no comprehension of what it was like in the South.  Now, many years and plenty of visits later, I begin to understand."        

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Sarni.  Similar to the wonderful Autogrill, Sarni is the name of a rest stop chain.  We stopped at one on the A19 between Palermo and Catania at kilometer 188 in Misterbianco and for 1 euro, I had a really, really good cappucino served in a real china cup and saucer with a real (not plastic) spoon.  As Matt Goulding, mentioned above under 'Cuisine,' says, "There's not a highway rest stop barista [in Sicily] who couldn't grind and extract circles around the mustachioed coffee police of Portland, Brooklyn, and other hipster havens."   'Qualità per passione' (quality for passion) is Sarni's motto, and while you could just stop at a Sarni to fill up your gas tank, you could also sit down in a restaurant setting and have a better than average meal (again, served on real china plates) or get a few items to go, like a freshly made sandwich not wrapped in plastic. When I last looked on the Sarni website, there was a picture of a winter offering: a bean soup served in a terracotta bowl on a real plate with four slices of toast.  Definitely not found at any American rest stop.   

Sicilian-American Organizations.   Becoming acquainted with these local or national organizations is another way of immersing oneself in Sicily, and you never know who you might meet and what you may learn in the process.  Arba Sicula, affiliated with St. John's University in Queens, New York, is a non-profit organization that promotes the language and culture of Sicily by publishing Sicilian Dawn and Sicilia Parra; by promoting books about Sicily ("books are our best bet to overcome the silly stereotypes of Sicilians produced by the mass media"); organizing lectures and poetry recitals; and by hosting an annual tour of Sicily for members.  Local Sicilian Clubs like the Lega Siciliana Social Club in Waterbury, Connecticut are numerous.  The Waterbury club, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, features 'Fabulous Friday Night Dinners' and there are videos from Siracusa on its website, which also notes that WATR 1320-AM plays Italian and Italian-American favorites and is the only local radio station with commercials in English and Italian.  NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) is based in Washington, D.C. and is "the largest and most loyal representative of the more than 20 million Italian American citizens living in the U.S." 

Sicilian Vespers.  This episode, which occurred on 29 March, 1282, became one which embodied the ideals of the Italian Risorgimento, when Italy was unified in 1861.  Some background: after the battle of Benevento in 1226, Manfred was killed and Sicily became the possession of Charles of Anjou, who crowned himself king.  So once again the Sicilians were the subjects of a distant power, and French rule on the island was notorious for the heavy taxes it imposed and the disdain it had for the population.  The 29th of March in 1282 was Easter Sunday, and on Easter Monday, crowds of people came to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo to attend the Vesper service.  In his book The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century, noted historian Steven Runciman documents the chain of events, which begin with a group of French officials who try to mingle with the gathered crowd.  They were apparently drunk and treated the younger women there with a familiarity that didn't sit well with the Sicilians.  A sergeant named Drouet pulled a young married woman to the side and pestered her with his attentions, which was more than her husband could tolerate so the husband drew his knife and attacked Drouet, stabbing him to death.  The Frenchmen wanted to avenge their comrade's death but found themselves surrounded by men with daggers and swords.  Not a single Frenchman survived, and at that precise moment, the Church's bell -- and all the bells of the churches in Palermo -- begin to ring for Vespers.  "To the sound of the bells messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor.  At once the streets were full of angry armed men, crying 'Death to the French' - 'moranu li Franchiski' in their Sicilian dialect.  Every Frenchman that they met was struck down.  They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child.  Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husband.  The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word 'ciciri,' whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce.  Anyone who failed in the test was slain."  The revolt spread to the rest of the island and over 3,000 French men and women were killed.  Six weeks later, French control of Sicily was over.  Below is a painting of the event by Erulo Eroli (1854-1916), in the collection of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (G/M) in Palermo (though the image here is from the History Collection website).  

   



Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History, by Sandra Benjamin (Steerforth Press, 2006) is a book I hadn't read when I posted the recommended reading list in my very first post on Sicily, but I'm including it here because it's an excellent read "on the economic and demographic aspects of Sicily's story."  Benjamin hardly touches on the fine arts, and adds that her book is a general history and an account of welfare and warfare, and she highlights certain threads that run through the centuries: the island's particular patterns of land use and Sicily's unique relationship with the church.  Additionally, "Sicily's character has also been determined by the lack of influence from events that affected Europe generally, namely the Crusades and Columbus's discovery of America."  The book is nearly 500 pages so it's not for the casual reader, but it's written in a lively manner and also includes maps, a glossary and notes on Italian word endings, a glossary of notable names, and suggestions for further reading.     

Sicily Through Writers' Eyes, written and edited by Horatio Clare (Eland Publishing, 2006).  I didn't discover this wonderful book until after I'd posted the recommended reading list, my very first post on Sicily.  This is one edition in a great series that I highly recommend, and Eland Books, in London, is also a publishing house that deserves the attention of anyone who likes to travel (its motto is 'Keeping the best of travel writing alive").  Eland's publisher is Barnaby Rogerson, who I referred to as 'Mr. Morocco' in my own Morocco book (Rogerson is also the author of five editions of the Cadogan Guide to Morocco as well as a number of other very interesting books).  Editor Clare shares that the first time he saw Sicily was at daybreak from the deck of an overnight boat from Naples.  A man came out on deck and faced the city of Palermo.  "He gathered his breath and let it out, 'Ai...' he said, his tone somewhere between a wish, a tribute and  reproach, '...Palermo!'  He rolled the sound slightly between the syllables.  'Ai, Pa-lermo!'  I felt I could immediately appreciate, though it has taken me all my time here to understand, something of what he meant."  Clare has gathered an outstanding selection of writers' words about Sicily and has organized them by themes ('Arrivals,' 'Miracles,' 'People of the Earth,' 'The Curse,' 'The Life,' and 'Departure').  There were a few entries that I started reading and thought I might skip over them, but I ended up reading every single one and I'm so glad I did.  Among the writers featured are D. H. Lawrence, Homer, Luigi Pirandello, Giovanni Verga, Ibn Jubayr, Andrea Camilleri, W. H. Auden, Mary Taylor Simeti, Carlo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia, Peter Robb, John Dickie, and Vincent Cronin, whose book The Golden Honeycomb I've just ordered.  There is also an excerpt from a book called Milocca: A Sicilian Village by Charlotte Gower Chapman, who grew up in Chicago and learned Sicilian from immigrants there.  In 1928, she went to Milocca, in the island's interior (in the the province of Caltanissetta, about 80 miles south of Palermo) and immersed herself in the life of this small, isolated community.  She wrote the manuscript and sent it home but it got lost in the mail.  It somehow reappeared in the 1970s, when it was finally published (there are several editions by a few publishers).  Clare provides fascinating back stories like this one for each excerpt, and this book is definitely essenziale.   

Strada degli Scrittori.  The Strada, or the Route of the Writers, is an itinerary in the south of Sicily that highlights particular places related to a number of Sicilian writers.   The route is a great way to delve into literature, see some beautiful sites, and try some culinary specialties.  The writers featured are Andrea Camilleri, Luigi Pirandello, Antonio Russello, Leonardo Sciascia, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Piermaria Rosso di San Secondo (known as Red of San Secondo), and among the sites on the route are Agrigento, the Scala dei Turchi, Palma di Montechiaro, Porto Empedocle, Favara, and Racalmuto, home to the Fondazione Leonardo Sciascia (2021 marks the centenary of his birth). 

Stupor Mundi, 'The Wonder of the World.'  This phrase refers to Frederick II, son of the German  King Henry VI of Hohenstaufen (Holy Roman Emperor who was also the son of Frederick I 'Barbarossa') and Constance (the daughter of the Norman Roger II).  In 1198, when Frederick was three and a half years old, he was crowned king of Sicily (Henry had gotten sick and died).  When he was fourteen, Frederick also was crowned king of Germany, and later, in 1220, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St. Peter's in Rome, on the same day he proclaimed that the Kingdom of Sicily was legally separate from his empire.  Sandra Benjamin, in Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History, writes that Frederick was rare among human beings not only in being royal.  "He was rare in having grown up as an orphan without brothers or sisters -- indeed, at least in Sicily, without any relatives at all.  That Frederick was not born on the island of Sicily is a technicality; he was to all effects a homegrown prince, and he considered the island his home.  In his youth he knew the reality of his subjects' lives as well as anyone of any epoch born to the purple."  Frederick's reign during the first half of the 13th century was "Sicily's finest hour," according to the authors Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio.  They emphasize that slavery was nearly abolished in Sicily and serfdom was never as prevalent as it was in England, France, or Germany.  Literacy, and a certain freedom of speech, were considered every Sicilian's birthright.  For a few decades, there were separate but equal jurisdictions based on Koranic law for Muslims, Judaic law for Jews, Byzantine Greek law for Byzantines, and Norman feudal law for Normans, and important documents were multilingual.  "True, a Latin (and Roman Catholic) orientation prevailed by 1200, but into the reign of Frederick II a quasi-egalitarian society existed.  At least for a time, it was a successful experiment."  Writer Beniamino Inserra, in an article for The Best of Sicily, adds that Frederick was especially interested in poetry and literature, and the Sicilian language flourished at his court.  Falconry, ecology, and efficient government were a few of his other obsessions, and he had a true intellectual passion that was rare in the thirteenth century.  After his death, "...never again would Sicily achieve the glory, prosperity, and true independence she had enjoyed under this most singular of sovereigns."            


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Taormina.  "Should you only have one day to spend in Sicily," writes Guy de Maupassant in Towards the Golden Skies (1885), "and you ask me 'what is there to see?' I would reply 'Taormina' without any hesitation.  It is only a landscape, but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination."  The landscape of Taormina is one of the most spectacular on earth, and it's easy to see why it's the most visited place in Sicily.  Goethe referred to it as a "patch of paradise" and it has been a favorite of numerous film, theater, art, and music celebrities around the world, including D. H. Lawrence, Alexander Dumas, Paul Klee, Luigi Pirandello, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Klimt, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, and Truman Capote (see 'Retracing Capote's Mediterranean Path,' by Ratha Tep, for more on his time in Taormina).  While I expected it to be popular, I was still surprised that when I was looking for accommodations almost every place was fully booked -- and this was in March for a September visit.  So if you'd like to include Taormina in your itinerary it's essential to plan very far in advance.  We were happy to secure a reservation at Albergo Bel Soggiorno, which had been recommended, and it was among the few rooms still available.  The inn is on the hillside below the town, so it's quiet and removed from all the bustle.  It takes about 20 minutes to walk (uphill) to town, so that might be a deal breaker for some; we enjoyed the exercise and walking through the pretty Giardini della Villa Comunale, once the private garden of Florence Trevelyan, a wealthy British woman who came to Sicily in the 1880s and never left (the scuttlebutt is that after Queen Victoria, who invited Florence to Balmoral on numerous occasions, found out about an affair between Florence and Edward VII, she sent Florence off on a Grand Tour of Europe and arranged for an allowance of 50 pounds a month; Florence fell in love with Taormina -- she declared it "as beautiful as a fairy tale" -- and she initially bought Isola Bella, which visitors pass just before the serpentine-like road winds up to Taormina proper.  She built a house there and created a garden, and today Isola Bella is a protected site overseen by the Archaeological Park of Naxos-Taormina.  Florence later married and moved to the center of Taormina).  The Bel Soggiorno is a good value considering the price of hotels on and around Taormina's Corso Umberto I, and the front desk staff were very friendly and accommodating, as was Nino in the large dining room (a shuttle service to the beach is also provided but we didn't take advantage of it).  As it was my birthday, I had requested a room with a balcony, and upon arrival I learned my request had been granted.  Absolutely fabulous.  










Our guestroom itself was more functional than charming, and fairly spacious, though the bathroom was small and the shower stall quite tiny.   The public rooms are nice, including the hotel hallways, which have windows with great views at either end. 


  

  





After a quiet walk up the hill from the Bel Soggiorno on our first evening, we were dismayed to see how crowded it was on the Corso Umberto, "the long, determined Corso Umberto I, the main (and inescapable) street of Taormina" as Barbara Grizzuti Harrison refers to it.  The pedestrian street "delivers you from one end of town to the other, its narrowness of purpose redeemed by piazzas and panoramic belvederes that rhythmically open the straight thoroughfare up when it threatens to become claustrophobic."  The Corso was jam-packed and we did feel claustrophobic, and it seemed like this famous street had nothing to offer except designer shops, souvenir shops for tourists, and restaurants.  I was glad to have the 'Taormina Town Walk' from the Rick Steves Sicily guide as I would otherwise have missed some of the truly beautiful architectural gems on this thoroughfare, and I wouldn't have known to look up at the many balconies or that there is an annual balcony-decorating competition every spring.  One worthwhile address on the Corso, at number 61, is the Casa del Cinema, where we saw the exhibit 'Le Stelle di Taormina' (The Stars of Taormina), a collection of posters, photos, and film clips of the many movies shot in Taormina.  An annual Film Fest is held in Taormina (the 2019 Fest was the 65th) as well as a full calendar of cultural events organized by the Fondazione Taormina Arte Sicilia.  One shop on the Corso I did like is L’Agorà Galleria d'Arte, at number 133, which has a very nice selection of antique maps, drawings, contemporary paintings, rare books, etc. 

It's helpful to know that there are three parts to Taormina: Isola Bella and the beaches; the town itself; and Castelmola, the small village even higher up than Taormina that was built on the ruins of a Norman castle. The area around it is rather wild and undeveloped and is a nice contrast to Taormina proper (it's about a two-hour walk from the center of Taormina).  Among the sites of interest in Taormina's historic center are the Badia Vecchia, Palazzo Corvaja, the Odeon, Palazzo Duchi di Santo Stefano, Palazzo Ciampoli, and the Naumachie.  They're all worthwhile, but by far the most significant site is the Teatro Antico, the Greek-Roman Theater, set on a cliff with a magnificent panorama: overlooking the Bay of Naxos and with a view of Mount Etna.  The theater is referred to as both Greek and Roman because its origins are still open to debate among experts in the field, though it's generally believed that the Greeks built it in the third century BC and the Romans later enlarged it.  We arrived at the theater a half hour before opening (9:00) and it was a wise decision as it wasn't crowded and even the Corso was pleasant to stroll at that time.   

  













Taormina's two most posh hotels are the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo (the first hotel built in Taormina, in the 1860s) and the San Domenico Palace Hotel (currently closed for restoration).  The Grand Timeo is right next door to the Theater -- literally steps away -- so staying there is really convenient and it's gorgeous; but even if a stay there is prohibitively expensive, you could visit the Theater in the late afternoon and then have drinks at the hotel's Literary Terrace & Bar, or dinner at the Michelin-starred Otto Geleng or the Timeo restaurant.  


Tischi Toschi (off Corso Umberto at vico (alley) Francesco Paladini 3) is a family-run, Slow Food endorsed trattoria that's really good and doesn't feel touristy.  The unusual-sounding name defines a Sicilian emigrant who upon returning home seems to have lost the dialect and traditional ways of doing things -- it was said the emigrant spoke to the tischi toschi.  Therefore the emigrant was reminded not to speak tischi toschi: "talk as your mother made you."   

A word about driving and parking: cars are not permitted in the historic center of Taormina, so I strongly recommend that you inquire about parking before you arrive.  Some hotels have parking or valet parking (the Bel Soggiorno has a number of parking spots) or you may have to drop your luggage off at the hotel and then park in one of the two parking garages in town.  None of this may sound problematic or different from other European locales, but the thing is that the road into Taormina is a one-way, twisty loop and it's easy to find yourself past where you want to be, and then there is no alternative than to keep going because you can't turn around.  We had great directions from the Bel Soggiorno staff and didn't have any trouble, but I have several friends who tell what are now funny stories but who were at the time quite stressed out by the vexing route.

The Ten Pains of Death, by Gavin Maxwell (Dutton,1960).  Maxwell also wrote one of my most favorite books about Morocco, Lords of the Atlas (Dutton, 1966), so when I learned of this book I knew I had to read it.  I won't give away what the ten pains of death are but they were named by Giovanni Florio in 1591 in 'Second Fruits.'  Maxwell dedicated the book to "the common people of Western Sicily, who know the ten pains of death," and the book recounts his time living at Scopello tonnara on the gulf of Castellammare in the northwest corner of the island, in 1953.  He originally planned to write about the bandit Salvatore Giuliano (mentioned above under Piana degli Albanese) but after three years of gathering material, he found he'd become both horrified and fascinated by Western Sicily, "horrified by its desperate poverty and misery, and fascinated by an intensely individual people whom I had come, a very little, to know, to understand, and to feel for."  Then he realized that Danilo Dolci had already written a book that was very similar to what he envisioned for his own; but Maxwell's aim was less strictly socio-economical than Dolci's, and he presents a broader picture of life in Western Sicilian villages.  It's a fascinating look at this area as it was in the mid-20th century and many different types of people are presented as well as many topics, such as the mafia, olives, religion, wine, the church, marriage, and America (at the time Maxwell was there, perhaps three-quarters of all Castellammarese families had relations in America).  Maxwell concludes his Prologue by writing, "The union with Italy in 1862 brought no material benefits to the island, and the people's way of life and outlook has remained unchanged for perhaps a thousand years...When the President of the Italian Republic visited Sicily in 1958 he said he had seen things that had 'frozen his ability to smile.'              

W
Wine.  In The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil writes that "In no place is the Santa Trinità Mediterranea -- Mediterranean Holy Trinity -- of wine, olive oil, and bread more evident than in Sicily.  The island's hilly terrain, poor soil, and unfaltering sunlight are tailor-made for the production of all three Italian necessities."  Some of Sicily's grape varieties are also found on the Italian mainland while a few are only grown on the island.  Among the varieties you'll encounter are Catarratto, Grillo, Perricone, Inzolia, Frappato, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Nerello, Carricante, and Nero d'Avola, probably the island's most popular (it's a red wine grape that produces a rather intense, very full-bodied wine).  As an aside, Marsala, Sicily's most famous wine, is made principally made from Grillo and Catarratto bianco grapes.  The Do Bianchi website, mentioned previously, has an Italian Grape Name and Appellation Project that includes Sicilian names as well as an Italian-English Wine Glossary that's very helpful.  Eric Asimov, wine columnist for The New York Times, featured the white wines of Sicily and a tasting report in 2019.  He writes that the whites of Sicily, "particularly those grown in the foothills of Mount Etna, have been earning attention as among the most distinctive and unusual white wines in Italy, if not the world."  It's no longer true, as it was a few decades ago, that Sicilian wines were made for quantity as opposed to quality, and travelers can expect to find real treasures and very decent vino da tavola in most corners of the island.