The long way around Sicily

In some ways, it feels like too much time has passed since I visited Sicily last August to write about it now. I certainly planned to. Lots of people have asked me when I’ll write about it. I’ve started a dozen times. The time has passed though, and I realized that there is something to be said about picking things up again a few months later. I’ve been working on a (new!) big project lately, which involves a lot of memoir travel writing, and (with a healthy dose of help from my journals from the trip itself) I’m enjoying the process of living these moments again, of seeing the culmination of emotions, the way that events shape and fold into each other, have ultimately lead me to bigger things. Both in re-writing them for myself and in sharing them with others, the adventures live in. And in the coldest months of Minnesota, adventure can be especially good for the soul.

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Stunning cliff faces in north-western Sicily, near Palermo.

One of the reasons I’m a little overwhelmed by writing about Sicily is that it’s a loaded topic, in general and, increasingly, for me personally. I’m not going to even attempt to crack away at the actual history or tangled cultural roots of this region at the center of the Mediterranean in this blog post. There is truly so much to tell, even from what little I do fully understand. I feel like the place to start, though, is with the most common association people have with Sicily: the Mafia. When I first met my boyfriend Gabriele, and he told me he lived in Milan but his family is Sicilian, I said something offhandedly about the Mafia. His face clouded and he explained to me his frustration that this is all most people know about his homeland. I can understand having a swift and poignant frustration when everyone’s first reaction to your home is “Oh, I can see why you wanted to get out of there!”, and the more the told me about Sicily, the more excited I was to see the region. In fact, having been there, it’s shocking to me that this is not one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, given what it has to offer.

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Our hotel along the lush foothills of the heart of Sicily: the Etna volcano.

On our first day, as we drove from the Palermo airport to our hotel near Trapani, Gabriele described the landscape as a mosaic of agricultural activities. This is absolutely true – astoundingly so: I saw deserts, pine forests, vineyards, olives, and pistachios, in just a few hundred kilometers – but what struck me as we traveled was how much of a mosaic the island is in every other way. With it’s location at the center of the Mediterranean and it’s relative fertility, Sicily has been home and prize to generations of conquerors and cultural influences. From Greeks, to Arabs, to Romans, to Spaniards, to Normans, to a major front of WWII, you can see bits of each of these groups everywhere, and in a single day visit an archaeological site from each era. Like most of Italy, it is also a mosaic of mouth-watering cuisines and extraordinarily local specialties. I was told in the northern central part of the island that I should probably not eat any pasta norma, because that’s typical of Catania, about 150 kilometers away as the crow flies, and won’t be very authentic. (Don’t even ask about when I wanted some carbonara, which is from Rome of all far-flung places!)

The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
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One of the last traditional salt works in the Mediterranean, where salt water is concentrated, evaporated and salt harvested by hand.
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of Monreale
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of the Duomo in Monreale, completed in 1182 by the Normans.

Gabriele and I are doers when we travel. He wanted to share with me as many of the millions of sides of Sicily as he could. So looking back, I can’t begin to describe every city, village or historical site we went to and why they were all fascinating. Maybe later a few highlights of the more than 2,500 kilometers we criss-crossed are in order, but not today. (Considering it’s less than 350 kilometers across the entire island, you might get an idea of how much we drove in 2 weeks.)

The overall experience of Sicily, though, was something I felt deeply and resoundingly. Before I came, Gabriele would almost nervously try to explain things to me, as if apologizing in advance for the ways in which which this place would be different from Northern Italy where we’d traveled before. Granted, I’ve traveled in a lot of places that are not Western Europe, so I wasn’t horrified by the country streets which were sometimes lined with garbage, or the gradual appearance of decay in a lot of the cities. The description he gave me which fits best is, “Sicily is the most Italian place you can go, in all of the best ways and in all of the worst ways.” You can truly go from some of the most industrial, or just plain ugly sites to the most spectacular vistas in a few meters. There is a rich tapestry of culture, history and modern intrigue, but it’s also an economically poor place – made clear by all of the “For Sale” signs hanging from windows in every city center. Honestly, if I did not have a tour guide and a car at my disposal, I cannot imagine being a tourist here: most people speak Sicilian, which is distinct from Italian (and very few speak English), there are poor train and bus systems between even the major cities, and hardly any easy tourist infrastructure in the center of the island. Not to mention nearly every roundabout is a mess of street signs pointing to villages and cities, including the least direct routes, that would take even a local a pause to decipher.

The other comment that seems to capture the spirit and difficulties of Sicily in my mind is when we were discussing what we’d do and I asked if we’d spend time in Palermo or Catania, the largest cities, and Gabriele said “Well, we could, but they are so full of interesting history, museums and things to do, we’d never see it all in the time we have. Also, I don’t want my car to get stolen.”

The winding streets of Cefalù, mid-day.

Right now, Sicily remains a warm, fast moving mosaic of sensations in my mind. Cities made of the lava of Etna, cities who’s white and narrow architecture transplants one just across the channel to Northern Africa, villages carved into cliff sides. The tastes of real canoli, granita (lemon flavored shaved ice) on a hot day and greasy arrancini from a street vendor. Churches studded and covered in gold, cathedrals build upon the ruins and columns of Greek temples, where you can pray to statues of Saints between the marbles pillars which certainly saw very different worship in their younger years. Counting the crumbling towers which line the coasts of the island. Layers upon layers of salt water and sunscreen across my skin. Walking hand-in-hand in the hot afternoon sunlight, when no one else was out, through twisted alleyways under balconies heavy with laundry. Then evening would come and the town square would fill for an elaborate talent show-like concert for all of the locals.

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The main road to the central square of Gabriele’s town.

Gabiele’s mother’s family is from a small town (about 10,000 people) in the south eastern part of Sicily, near Ragusa. Though his father was also of Sicilian origin, they still have a home on the same street where his mother was born, in a row of similarly unpainted homes that seems desolate and imposing in the middle of the day, but where every neighbor waves from behind their barbed wire fence and waves “buonasera!” to you by name as you pass once it’s cool enough to be outdoors. Most of the residents of the village work early mornings and late evenings in the kilometers of green houses with surround the city, and, as of recent years, a growing number are Tunisian migrants. Once the mid-day sun has stopped hitting the central square directly, it fills with local men, mostly over 50 years old, who sit on benches or pace in groups. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they appear to be thinking deeply. No women are present, and you get the distinct feeling that if one showed up, or an outsider decided to walk through, it would throw off the equilibrium of the village.

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The Duomo of Ragusa Ibla, the old quarter of the regional capital.

Ragusa province felt to me like it was on the cusp of something. It’s apparently called the “stupid province” because there is no Mafia presence there – though this may not be the worst thing in the rest of the world’s eyes. Close to the provincial capital, the city of Ragusa, are Scicli and Modica. You could spend days in these two spectacular Baroque cities, admiring stone carvings along buildings and eating chocolate in the traditional way the Spanish brought from South America when their kingdom included Sicily – an art still kept alive at a very fancy chocolate shop where you can sample all you want. Nearby is the city of Noto, another Baroque jewel, and Siracusa, one of the most elegant Sicilian cities and one of the many incredible sites of Greek ruins on the island. I can’t say for sure, but I could see tourism taking off and sticking here, if the right people start showing up.

For now, it remains cheap, sleepy and incredibly real, which I’ll admit, are three things I long for when traveling.

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Scicli, an amazingly detailed Baroque city in southern Sicily.

This trip was different for me than any other I’ve taken. On the one hand, I didn’t feel any of the rush I usually do when traveling: the need to not waste a single moment on the road, to see everything I possibly can because who knows when or if I’ll be able to be back. In Sicily, I felt utter confidence that I’d be back, and many times in my life. So it did not feel like a loss when we didn’t go to Agrigento’s cluster of incredible Greek temples, or I didn’t feel totally present in Siracusa – which people tell me is one of the most amazing cities in Sicily – because of the hot Scirocco winds blowing up from the Sahara, topping the temperatures at over 100 F in the incredibly powerful sunlight. I feel so much confidence – and excitement – that I’ll be back, that this place will continue to expose itself to me, shape me and become a part of my own story.

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Overlooking the hillside-covered houses of the city of Modica

The other reason this trip was so different was that it was truly an experience of learning about another person, one whom I happen to be madly in love with, through the exploration of a place. One of the things Gabriele and I realized about each other early on was that we share not only a love of maps as home decoration tools, but a similar passion and appreciation for the place where we each grew up. Being able to explore Minnesota with him is such a gift to me, because I can truly see his understanding of me growing by seeing my home, and it was the same for me in Sicily. There may not be two more different places in the world than deeply southern Italy and Northeastern Minnesota, we would laugh as I wilted in the heat, but there is something below the surface of the wild differences that ties us together, turned us into two people who could see and love one another so deeply.

I hope to be one day knowledgeable enough of the places and particular histories to write with confidence about how this incredible place has become what it is, and I hope that I can also in my life bear witness to some of the economic and political changes that would make Sicily a better place to live and explore. But I feel lucky for the intimacy with which I was able to begin this journey, and the knowledge that I will be back to witness and learn more.

I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, and I'm not sure how to explain why, either.
I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, though I’m not sure how to explain why.

3 thoughts on “The long way around Sicily

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