We meet a lot of people in our travels who are excited to tell us they’ve been to the United States. When we ask where, their responses are usually the same: New York City, Washington DC, Orlando and sometimes Los Angeles or Chicago. We tend to believe that any one of these places is not representative of the US as a whole. Yet, I think we, and I believe many other Americans, do the same thing.
“Have you been to France?” “Oh, yes, I love Paris.” Or, “Have you been to Italy?” ” We think Rome is wonderful.” This became my realization when we spent September in Sicily. Having visited Rome I was surprised at how different Sicily is…not better not worse…just different. We think of Italy as a country of ancient ruins but it’s really a very young country. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the different states were consolidated into the Kingdom of Italy. And from 1815 – 1860 there existed the Kingdom of the two Sicilies with capitals in Naples and Palermo. Sicily even has its own language, not a dialect but an actual language.
We landed in Palermo and were met by Cary and her friend Claudio. We had been invited to stay with Claudio’s parents, Franca and Pippo, who have a summer location in Triscina close to the Mediterranean Sea. The drive to their home from Palermo was gorgeous with the road meandering between the mountains and the sea. We were very lucky to be able to stay with local residents, and while neither Franca nor Pippo speak English, Cary and Claudio both speak fluent Italian and English so little was lost in the conversations. Claudio’s mother is an amazing cook and we were overwhelmed by the quantity of the food. Pasta would be a whole meal for us. But it was just the beginning of her lunch. And I never realized how many different forms of pasta there were. They are chosen for the way they blend with the sauce…some thinner, some heavier. But ALL DELICIOUS! Each one would be my favorite until the next day when I tried one that I liked even better.
On Sunday morning we headed to the local fish market and watched as Claudio’s mother bought a whole swordfish which was then sliced into individual steaks right in front of our eyes.
A couple of hours later this wonderful fish was served for lunch (in the course AFTER the pasta). Talk about fresh! It seemed like his mother was continuously cooking! Their home was very warm and welcoming and we felt very lucky to have been invited to stay with these gracious people.
Even though the Kingdom of Italy is new, Sicily is an ancient region. We visited the Selinunte Ruins not far from Triscina. Selinunte is a Greek city dating from 600 BC.
At one point it is believed there were as many as 30,000 citizens, not including the slaves. It was marked by the ruins of Greek Temples (A, B, C, and O) and the Acropolis. Some have deteriorated over time and some have damage caused by the earthquake in 1968.
From the ruins we drove on to Marsala to visit the natural reserve, Stagnone Lagoon, which is a marine area with salt ponds and windmills. (Marsala is also known for Marsala wine.) We ate dinner at Mama Caura’s and sat outside sipping our wine as we watched the sun set over the Lagoon. It was like sitting in front of a great painting.
We visited the hill town of Salemi with Toto, a close friend of Claudio’s family, as our tour guide. Because Toto grew up in Salemi he was able to guide us through the winding climbing streets of the town pointing out various sites and adding little known tidbits of information. The town has a very rich history having been controlled over time by: the Romans, The Arabs, and The Normans. The city also had a Jewish quarter. The Arabs (in the 800’s) brought many new agricultural products to the area among them citrus fruits, apricots, and saffron.
The Arab influence can still be seen in the town’s architecture. Toto told how as a small boy he could remember the American troops marching into the city and handing out chocolates to the children! Wow! That was something I could picture from old movies! I could have listened to his stories forever!
On a different day we were invited to appetizers by another of Franca’s and Pippo’s friends, Milly and Eino who are originally from Estonia. Their home is at the end of the street looking right out at the Mediterranean. Eino prepared wonderful hors d’oeuvres that we ate as sat on their porch overlooking their lovely pool directly in front of us and the sea beyond. We had to pinch ourselves at how fortunate we were to be visiting with and learning about the area with people who lived here!
Most of the area where we were visiting was in the region of Trapani and since we have a daughter-in-law with that maiden name we really wanted to visit the city itself. We walked through the local market and found that it was much like all the other markets we’ve visited throughout Europe.
I think there was probably a time when these markets featured local crafts but generally now we find the same things throughout Europe: fruit, olives, meat, fish, leather goods, clothes and if we closed our eyes we often wouldn’t know what city we were in. The downtown had a lot of lovely old buildings. But the high point of the day was our drive to Erice. The town is located at the top of Mount Erice and overlooks the city of Trapani. Bob and I walked only a short distance up the steep street but thoroughly enjoyed the drive both up and back down the mountain.
On one of our last evenings in Triscina we met up for dinner. There would be twelve of us including our new friends. This time we went to Marzara del Vallo a beautiful city and major fishing center. The center is called the Casbah with a lot of Arab architectural influence.
What fun we had wandering through the town before heading to Ristorante Lo Scoiattolo for dinner. I think 8 of us had mussels! It’s the only time I ever remember being served more mussels than I could eat! Really yummy!
Two days later we headed out stopping to drop Cary and Claudio at the airport for their flights back to the continent. We then continued to the eastern side of Sicily. Driving through Palermo we headed on to Cefalu, a town of about 14,000, located on the northern coast of Sicily right on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The main draw of Cefalu is the cathedral that was built in the 1100’s.
We were amazed at how crowded this little town was but we were able to find a parking place and it proved a lovely break in a day of driving. We continued from Cefalu aiming for Catania. The center of Sicily is very sparsely populated. There are a few small towns on the mountainsides but for the most part the rest areas along the highway were the only places of civilization we encountered. The scenery was pretty in a very barren sense…reminding us of Lanzarote.
Catania is a gritty city but we had made hotel reservations close by the sites we wanted to see and always felt safe wherever we walked. (We rented a car in Sicily but chose not to use it in the cities due to congestion and hassles with parking.) Catania sits at the foot of Mt. Etna which was one of the reasons we wanted to visit. How ironic that we only got one glimpse of the mountain as we were leaving and heading further south.
For the two days we were there I think I always held the possibility of an earthquake in the back of my mind. I’m not sure how people who live in areas of earthquakes deal with that but perhaps it’s no different than living in an area that has tornadoes! One benefit of the volcano is the ash that provides fertile soil for the growth of grapes for wine! From Catania we drove to Messina where we could watch the ferry as it approached the mainland.
The Catania fish market, the largest fish market in Europe, is a rowdy mass of wall to wall people. Fish mongers yell continuously as they work furiously beneath canvas covers that protect the fish (and the sellers) from the warm Sicilian sun. Every morning the fishermen come in with their catch, and we wonder what happens to all that is not sold. Does it go to local restaurants? Supermarkets? Charities? The symbol of the city is a huge black elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk in the city center. The elephant was created in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. We aren’t sure of its significance but it’s definitely impressive.
Catania was repeatedly bombed by the Allies during World War II so it’s amazing that the statue and so many of the city’s classical buildings survived.
From Catania we headed to Siracusa, the ancient city in southeast Sicily. We had been told by many that we wanted to stay in Ortigia. We found a small bed and breakfast on a narrow street. The owner had texted me that we could park in the Plaza di Archimede (making sure someone stayed with the car since it was illegal to park there) while the other person would walk to the B&B with the belongings. Bob would stay with the car and I’d take our stuff and check in. Of course in the piazza I chose the wrong direction (Picture a circle with five exits around it.) But soon I had figured it out. The B&B was new and the owner told us that the building had belonged to her sister and as they began restoring it, they found old archways and walls and had tried to restore it to its original plan. Breakfast was served each morning on the terrace on the top floor. The location was perfect, beautiful and close to everything!
We’d walk each day to visit various historic sites and then come back to our room to relax before going out in the evening for dinner and another walk. My favorite site was El Duomo (Cathedral of Syracuse) dating back to the 600’s. The cathedral became a mosque in the late 800’s and the converted back to a church in the late 1000’s. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Doric columns from the original church are integrated into the current church.
The Fonta Aretusa is a fresh water spring right next to the sea. Lengend has it that the nynph Arethusa was trying to escape from an unwanted suiter Alpheus and so was changed into a spring by the goddess Artemis.The whole island and its plazas were particularly beautiful at night.
From Siracusa we drove back toward Palermo to spend a couple of days before flying to Rome. Because we had been in very populated areas that past week we chose to stay at the Tenute Plaia Agriturismo between the quaint village of Scopello and the larger city of Castellammare del Golfo.
As we drove to the rural site uphill and down dale winding along the sea only to turn again up into the hills, we began to wonder just how remote this location was going to be. But as we turned into the drive we were stunned by the beauty of the sea in front of us. A perfect place to unwind for a couple of days before heading to Rome. Scopello, a small village less than a mile away, was a great place to spend a morning.
It’s a very short flight from Palermo to Rome and we were thrilled that Cary would meet us when we landed. Even though we only had two days with her Cary had rented a car and planned a great schedule. We spent a day in Tivoli at Villa d’Este which was commissioned in the 1500’s. Tivoli has always been a popular summer spot because of its cooler temperatures. On the day we visited rain threatened but we really lucked out missing most of the rain and temperatures in the high 70’s. Just perfect! The villa itself is beautiful but it was the gardens and fountains that we wanted to see. The gardens are on a variety of levels and contain fountains, water spouts, waterfalls and it’s all been created using gravity. There are no pumps. The water decorations are scattered among sculptures, mosaics, a variety of landscaping with paths and balconies throughout. I loved it. But judge for yourself!
Again time had passed far too quickly and it was time to move on. It’s hard to believe it’s been seven months since we had arrived in Europe. We hugged Cary good bye, made a bit easier knowing that we’d see her again at Christmas and boarded our 10 hour flight to DC! Good bye Europe. Hello US!