A man from Sicily once told me, glowing with pride – “We, Sicilians are indomitable – over centuries – our island has been conquered by many – but we, the people, stand like reeds in water – we bend with the wind, the prevailing current, but always return stronger and more resilient than before – we are Sicilian first, Italian second.”
Sicily is a land of fire and passion, where much blood has been lost over power and women; this Sicilian pride, dedication to family, and honor, gave birth to the Cosa Nostra – the Mafia – which still flourishes across the region and beyond.
Another strategic island in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the ‘toe’ of Southern Italy, Sicily has always been a coveted prize for every conquering hero within sailing distance, including those from the Ancient Greece and Rome, the Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, and so many more. Each have left a little something behind, either in the people, culture or landscape. I found the people to be initially wary, with an air of rude indifference, but, once they liked you, opened up to reveal genuine warmth and curiosity.
With Sicily, don’t expect the magnificence of Rome, the culture of Florence, or the mystery of Venice; she is raw, carnal, down-to-earth, knows poverty and corruption, with the heart of a rebel and the soul of a warrior, who does not play well with others – prepare to be fascinated and disquieted by equal measures.
With my life-long fascination for volcanoes, (Mount Etna is the most active in Europe) love of Godfather movies, and a passion for all things Ancient, I knew I’d get there at some point; I’ve now visited twice in the past 7 years. Both one-day adventures off a cruise ship, when I go back, I’ll stay longer; several hours is not enough to get more than a flavor of the place.
October 2009, the Carnival Dream – my first cruise – docked at Messina, Sicily – beyond excited, I’d chosen the Top of Etna tour. It was a lovely drive up to the smoldering giant, the hilly and lush terrain, with its lemon orchards, olive groves, and vineyards, reminded me of Southern California.
After the bus came a dramatic cable car ride, which soared over a recent lava flow, followed by a 4×4 van jaunt, then a good hike up the rest of the way, until I was delivered 9500 feet above sea level. Luckily, the wind was favorable, giving us good air quality, blue skies and clear views. Our guide talked about Etna, the many volcanoes of Italy, and how Vesuvius is the most monitored in the world, given her potential for absolute mayhem and carnage. After witnessing damage caused by Etna’s last big tantrum, which buried the visitor center to the roof, we were free to wander…
I stared into the eye of a huge crater, Everywhere, there were vents of puffing hot steam, (yes, I did put my hand up to check) a reminder we were there on the forbearance of a living, breathing beast! All around was a desolate, alien landscape with no returning life, unlike the Kilauea and Haleakala craters in Hawaii. It was so peaceful, no birds, no traffic, people seemed awed and spoke in hushed tones.
An hour later, we were told to start making our way back down to the van – about 20 minute hike – the wind shifted – and within seconds, we were inside a toxic sulfurous fog. It was horrible to breathe, my throat was burning, eyes stinging, and the gagging stench was unbearable. I felt bad for the people just arriving; I wouldn’t have wanted to linger up there. Gas masks not available!
After our Etna adventure, we were whisked off for a delicious late lunch of fresh pasta, salad with local olive oil, and throat-soothing red wine!
Once back in Messina, I’d just enough time to cross the road to check out the old cathedral, which was built on Roman ruins. You can still see the original foundations several feet below the city surface. Archaeologists love Italy; you never know what you’ll find when you go digging! Very frustrating for city planners.
February 2016 – this time on NCL Epic – we docked at Palermo, on the other side of Sicily. I resisted the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, refusing to spend most of the day in a bus. Instead, I went for the dual experience of the unfinished 2,500 year old Greek temple at Segesta and the medieval hill-town of Erice. The off-season lack of people was great; the chilly weather with the threat of rain/biting wind at higher elevations, not so much.
The scenic drive through lush countryside with flowering almond trees, endless vineyards, dotted with old bridges and crumbling ruins, finished on the slopes of Mount Barbaro, about 90 miles from Palermo. This is home to the isolated, never completed/never destroyed Doric Temple of Segesta – no-one knows why the project was abandoned – it has sat, pride of place, ignored for centuries. It’s so removed from anywhere, the intervening invaders possibly never knew it existed. The theater across the way invited exploration, but we didn’t have the time.
It’s a good trudge up to the temple, but worth it; I was told it gets busy and hot in summer, but we’d the place almost to ourselves. You can’t go in, it’s undergoing preservation work, but can walk around, and enjoy panoramic views and invigorating fresh air.
So beautiful and tranquil, I lingered behind the rest of the group – knowing I could bounce down the stairs and still be back to the bus on time – until I was alone; I imagined being transported to another age to enjoy a glorious sunset, with a carafe of wine, on a balmy summer night, tunic ruffling in a gentle breeze, as bits of song and laughter wafted over from the theater…
Next up was the medieval fortified town of Erice. As we snaked our way up the twisting road, we saw an imposing castle clinging to the cliff edge far above and lovely views across the bay of the glittering blue sea below. Our guide, Josefina, was worried about the threatening fog and looming black clouds; the unrelenting wind made sure they stayed away.
We were dropped off at the bottom end of the old walled city, built on the ruins of past glories of its mythological past, then it was more up, steep up, on legs. Erice was a ghost town, only we were stupid enough to be out and about in such cold, miserable, windy conditions, with few shops and cafes open, (most people live in the modern town down the hill.) We passed the grand cathedral and puffed and panted our way up to that castle perched on the cliff, buffeted by a vicious wind.
Despite the clear skies and stunning views, what started as a fun adventure flipped into something to be endured. Before long, my patience had expired; my ears were burning, nose running, and my fingers numb with cold. Why didn’t I bring my gloves? As we wandered the cobble-stoned narrow alleys, it grew impossible to pay attention to Josefina; I yearned shelter, food, and wine.
Finally, we were free for an hour or so. Myself, fellow photographer Ricardo and Sophia, his wife, retreated to the quaint little Cafe San Guiliani. It’s a family run establishment, with 5 tables, where they spoke no English; we were able to get warm, eat, drink and use their free wi-fi – first time I’d been able to check email/post to Facebook since I left Barcelona! To end our spell of sanctuary, I suffered a taste bud orgasm thanks to their home-made canoli – in Sicily – dream come true. The torturous weather of Erice was forgiven.
On the way back to Palermo, we passed whole swathes of mountainsides raped and ravaged for their marble – very disturbing; I always feel the same when I see pine forests chopped down to stumps and left for dead in the Scottish Highlands. Sicilian marble has been coveted for centuries by the wealthy, and the quarries do employ many, but it still looks bad as you’re going past!
Our driver gave us a drive through Palermo on the way back to the ship. If Cagliari was the noble lady down on her luck; Palermo’s her demented cousin, who’s rejected her family, and ran off with the family heirlooms! It’s a dense city, home to most of Sicily, where modern jousts with old, and football is the common denominator across classes and incomes.
It’s a real city, where people work and play, which doesn’t have the luxury of extra income from millions of cash happy tourists, as enjoyed by her northern Italian cousins. To make life more challenging, Palermo has become a dropping off point for the scores of economic migrants/refugees rescued at sea off the Libyan coast. Adding a bunch of needy foreigners onto a city with its own issues of poverty, and unemployment, is not the best solution for either side.
I loved the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s illustrious Opera House, the third largest theater in Europe. I snapped a few shots of the Piazza Verdi, from the bus, as we drove past – and lucked out finding the family in the square with the curious, beautiful little princess and her golden dog!
What to do depends on your fancy – do you want to lounge on the beach/swim in crystal blue waters? Hike/ski/explore Mount Etna? Eat and drink your way across Sicily, village by village? Seek out the many UNESCO heritage sites? Catch an opera in Palermo? Your call…the only way to do it all would be to go for a few weeks, rent a car, and gallivant at will.
At sunset, we pulled away from Sicily, this fascinating tarnished gem of an island. My next morning gym session came to an abrupt end once I realized that the low-lying clouds wafting over land was actually smoke – that we were coming alongside the active volcanic isle of Stromboli!
I abandoned my ocean-view elliptical machine and sprinted to my cabin, and grabbed my trusty Nikon 3300. Then, dashed around the decks to find the best shots as we did a circle around Stromboli. I was shocked by the number of homes on the lower slopes; at least Vesuvius gives the impression of hibernating – Stromboli is awake and breathing.
To learn more about Sicily:
Official Website of Teatro Massimo: http://www.teatromassimo.it/eng/the-theatre/
Love this blog from a local named Carmelina – for all things Sicilian – including the extensive history! http://www.sicilianexperience.com/
For more on Segesta/Erice/Sicily: http://www.seepalermo.com/segesta.htm
Interesting article on current refugee crisis – Palermo is dumping ground of those picked up at sea, which is not going down well with the locals; I didn’t see any trouble while I was there, but it’s happening! http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3546081/
Or check out Trip Advisor for all the tours/attractions in Sicily: http://www.tripadvisor.com
Next time – moving up the Italian coast = my take on Capri, Pompeii and Vesuvius, including an excerpt from my novel, inspired by my all-too-brief time on the Amalfi Coast…a place I could happily live…
To my loyal subscribers, if you want to see photos, please click on the blue link to the website – thank you!