Sicily through Marsha’s eyes and mouth
Ever since my first visit twenty years ago, Sicily has been my siren. Just as in Greek mythology, Sicily lures me periodically to its shores. Despite its Cosa Nostra, crumbling roadways, street beggars and garbage strewn everywhere—sometimes even from tree branches— I can’t forgo its seductive beauty and rich, exotic past for too long a period.
In fact, its multi-layered history is one of the things which keeps pulling at me. One would assume that with paternal grandparents from Cortina d’Ampezzo and Genoa, that I would be more predisposed to visiting my roots in northern Italy. Yet, it is the southern island of Sicily which I find more alluring.
Last week’s post talked about what my traveling pal, Jan Hazard, found most compelling about our recent visit to Sicily. Here is a brief account of some of the highlights from my side of the trip. They exemplify why I can’t get enough of Sicily’s seductive personality.
1. Sicily’s exoticness—Over the years I’ve worked and played in Italy but among all the regions I’ve visited, none has a richer or a more diverse history than Sicily. Given its fertile land and strategic location, it has been a prized possession for many conquerors over its 2,000-year history. The “Who’s Who” of its invaders includes, among others: The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, French, Austrians, Spanish, and yes, even the Italians. Sicily is fiercely proud of being lusted over by so many great civilizations and even more so, for surviving its succession of new “lovers.”
To appreciate the amalgam of multiple cultures and how they each left their mark, all you need do is visit one of Sicily’s older churches. For example, the Duomo in Siracusa’s historic core—Ortigia—started as a Greek temple. Then, it was altered architecturally when the Romans arrived and later by Norman masters who built taller walls to keep out the Saracens. After the 1693 earthquakes, which affected this corner of the island, the church was rebuilt in Sicilian Baroque style. Now a World Heritage site, the church’s flamboyant decorations with curves, swirls and cascades of smiling putti can’t help but put a smile on your face.
2. Ortigia’s open-air market—Our Backroads leaders gave us 45 minutes to walk around Ortigia after visiting the Duomo. Being a foodie, I headed to the city’s historic food market for some speed shopping. There, I was bombarded with all sorts of sounds, smells and animated gestures as each merchant hawked what they had to sell: fresh fish, recently caught; piles of bright yellow Sicilian lemons; and the largest collection of olives I’ve ever seen. Within no time, my knap sack was bulging with dried oregano branches, estratto di pomodoro (sun-dried tomato paste); small capers in sea salt; shelled pistachio nuts; candied orange rind; and lenticchie piccole, the world’s tiniest lentils.
3. A Baroque music concert —Our first port of call in Sicily was Catania. During an early evening walk Jan and I serendipitously happened upon a concert held in a tiny Baroque church called Chiesa di San Giuliano. We were enveloped by the magical music of an unknow-to-us 18th century composer, Antonino Reggio. The evening performance featured an accomplished choral group and music ensemble playing period instruments including a Baroque guitar and portable organ. Thanks to the church’s dome and architectural configuration, the acoustics were remarkable. Even when the singers and musicians had stopped performing the sounds continued to reverberate around the chapel which literally gave me goose pumps.
4. Sicily’s exquisite countryside—Even though our cycling group needed to pay close attention to the loose gravel on the roadways and multiple buche or potholes, I was still able to appreciate the sights and sounds along the way: Olive orchards being harvested by local families; grazing cattle with Mount Edna in the background; shepherds and barking dogs rounding up their flocks for milking (probably for making ricotta!); farm smells, a mixture of hay and manure offset by the fragrant sweetness of orange blossoms; overly ripe, red prickly pears splattering onto the roadway; periwinkle blue morning glories climbing up anything standing in their way; butterflies fluttering nervously through the air; and low humming tractors tilling the rich soil for their winter crop of durum wheat.
5. Meeting fascinating new people—Over the years, I have gone on many cycling vacations. I’ve found people on active vacations are generally inquisitive, adventurous, and fun-loving. Jan and I quickly assessed who we wanted to hang out with. We exchanged recommendations on restaurants and sights not to be missed from our previous cycling holidays. Mostly, we glossed over what we did for a living but did discuss our families including our husbands back home.
I particularly enjoy spending time with the Canadian contingency which included four neuro radiologists—whose cycling prowess left us all in the dust—and two bright, sassy ladies from Toronto, Janice and Joanne, whose wit, wisdom and warmness reminded me every day why I like Canadians so much.
Renée, a perky, diminutive cyclist from Cleveland, wowed us each morning at breakfast with a new, fanciful outfit. The women in the group were less curious about Renée’s electric bike experience (she had the only one on the trip) than her revolving wardrobe of cycling apparel. Her secret? www.shebeest.com.
Bernadette, a dentist and UCLA professor, shared her secrets for warding off sun’s damage by using ultraviolet protective clothing. She also provided a detailed explanation of how burrata was made, having just seen a demonstration in Puglia. Did you know it is a variation of a mozzarella? I didn’t.
6. Spontaneous experiences with the locals— I’ve casually studied Italian for the past 20 years. Every chance I have to practice it is both a treat and a humbling experience. During our week’s stay, I was able to try out my rudimentary language skills with people at hotels, gelaterias, and coffee bars. My favorite experience, however, was in a small, hidden away gift shop in Catania which sold volcanic lava stone jewelry, ceramics from Caltagiorne, and antique linen. The shop’s owner, a fashionably-dressed, middle-aged women, asked where we were from. When we responded “Siamo New Yorkese,” she clutched her heart and openly declared her love for Manhattan. The Signora had been to New York twenty years ago with her husband before she discovered her fear of flying. When they got to the top of the Empire State Building, she recalled, it magically started to snow. “I was so overwhelmed, that I began weeping like una bambina,” she recounted. This reaction completely confused her husband who couldn’t understand why she was so emotional. I could. Seeing the first snow each year always causes some emotive reaction in me as well.
The Sicilians we encountered were warm, hospitable and proud of their heritage. And rightfully so. Their rich culture, beautiful countryside and exquisite architecture—not to mention the best collection of Greek ruins and mosaics in the world—are just some of the reasons why I need my dose of la Bella Sicilia every two years.
Join me next week where I will share with you why I love the region’s exotic cuisine, especially its agrodolce (bitter sweet) flavors.