“Then one of them asked me why those Italian volunteers were really coming to visit Sicily. ‘They are coming to teach us good manners,’ I replied in English. But they won’t succeed, because we think we’re gods.” –Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
New Year’s Eve 2011. We were in the city of Siracusa, enjoying a great winter vacation in this little Baroque corner of Sicily. However, on the islet of Ortiga, it is the Greek influence that’s felt most profoundly. We were standing in front of the Temple to Apollo, which was just a five minute walk from our hotel. A cute old woman in a threadbare overcoat shuffled up next to us, her interest elicited by our big camera and awkward tripod.
After proper introductions, her curiosity got the best of her. “Sono venuti da Roma per vedere…” she hesitated, searching for the word while gesturing towards the ancient ruins with a dismissive wave of her hand “…queste pietre?” You came all the way from Rome to see… these rocks?
When she found out that I was American her interest piqued even more and she told us of an American soldier that she knew during the war. After a suitable period of formalities, she segued into more personal questions, still using the courtesy form, so common in the south. “Sono sposati? Hanno figli?” Are you married? Do you have children? But then finally, “Hanno visto il nostro duomo?” Have seen our cathedral?
In fact, we had made a reservation for our New Year’s Eve meal, our “cenone,” in a trattoria near the main square, just around the corner from the cathedral. We were early for dinner and the church was open later than normal because of the celebration in the square. We poked our heads inside and marveled at the incongruous mix of architectural styles. A history lesson written in marble, ceramic, canvas, and wood.
The present day church was built in the 7th century on top of an ancient Greek temple to Athena (who the Romans later worshiped as Minerva). Indeed, the original Greek columns are still very much visible in the modern structure. The Arabs used it as a Mosque for a few hundred years, adding some unique features to suit their Muslim traditions. The nave is from Norman times, and so are the mosaics in the apses. The roof was replaced by the Spanish rulers and the façade was rebuilt in the 1700s. In other words, practically the entire history of the island can be witnessed in this one building. This is the essence of Sicily, the crossroads of the Mediterranean: invaded by many, occupied by a few, but conquered by nobody. Sicily and her people remain uniquely Sicilian—which is to say a precise mix of all of these cultures.
The architecture presents many examples of this Mediterranean stew, but it’s certainly not the only place where one can experience this phenomenon when you visit Sicily. It’s found in the music, in the language, in the food, and in the DNA of the Sicilians themselves.
At midnight, the fireworks shot up over the Norman castle, Castello Maniace, lighting up the entire square in red and green flares. We popped our bottle of Prosecco and toasted the New Year, blinking at the statue of Saint Lucy who had awakened, but seemed unimpressed with the festivities around her. She and her city had seen much more excitement than this over the centuries. For us, however, the moment was special, a New Year’s Eve that we’ll never forget.
The Next Tuscany?
Fifteen years ago, Frances Mayes hypnotized us all with the bucolic allure of the Tuscan countryside and everything that we associated with that perfect dreamscape. Since then, it seems that every region in Italy has had its moment “Under the Tuscan Sun,” so to speak. First Umbria was dubbed, “The next Tuscany,” then a few years later it was Le Marche, and then Abruzzo, and most recently, everybody is singing the praises of Puglia.
In 2014, it’s Sicily’s turn—and it’s about time.
Starting next year, Jessica and I are going to be leading tours around this fabled land of Gods and heroes, of poets and sea monsters, for anyone interested in the cultural experience of a lifetime. We’ll be wandering amid myth and reality: across that ancient Trinacria sacred to Apollo, the god of the Sun; the Sicily of “The Leopard,” battled over by occupiers and invaders; fertile ground for olive trees and prickly pears and ancient grapevines producing some of the best wine in the world. We invite you to join us as we explore this alluring island, which legend declares was born of a gem fallen from the crown of Our Lord and perched precariously on three pillars, one of which, now cracked, is sustained on the shoulders of a humble fisherman.
If you visit Sicily with Jessica and me you will have the benefit of both expertise: the insider with local knowledge, and the seasoned American traveler who has learned how to optimize an itinerary and avoid the tourist traps. You will never be the clueless vacationer twisting a map and trying to communicate with ape-like gestures. We’ll introduce you to not only the famous places, but to the daily life, too.
We’ll learn how to make a proper cannolo and how to recreate a chocolate recipe borrowed from the Aztec Indians. We’ll wind our way through ancient catacombs and whisper in the ear of Dionysus. Watch an artisan fashion a traditional “carretto” (donkey cart) and take a walk along Europe’s angriest volcano. All the usual sites, as well? Yes, of course!
Jessica and I will guide you through the region of Italy which remains the most unknown, the most mysterious, and the most ripe for discovery. It will change the way you see Italy. As Goethe famously stated, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” And after you see this incredible land for yourself, you’ll know exactly what he meant.