“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.
If only we could but will be in Rome and Tuscany in 2014. Sicily is on our list for future Italian adventures though! I remember how astounded I was by the Temple of Minerva in Assisi, my very first Roman up close and touch columns, then stepping into the church, the decoration from a much later era! Great post!
Thanks, Phyllis! Yes, this is what really impresses me about Sicily, and Italy in general. There literally and endless number of treasure to discover! We’ll be doing it again in the future, so stay in touch! Ciao!
Great idea Rick. I have travelled extensively including several guided tours. They certainly have their benefits but for regular travellers the “tourist” part of the tour can be the deciding factor as to go or not go. Sure I am a tourist but I personally want to experience and enjoy the locals way of life. I hope that makes sense. You have a great team. A local girl and an English speaking pseudo local who is a traveller. When I hear of any one wishing to visit sicily I will point them in your direction.
Thanks so much, Lyn! Yes, that’s our goal, to provide a balanced experience. It’s great to enjoy the local way of life, but if a person makes one trip to Sicily in their life, then the also will want to see all the amazing sites. I think we’ve worked out an itinerary that provides both. Grazie, Lyn!
Si, Taormina è Bellissima ma BABILONIA è il vero tesoro!
Scusami, ma forse non avevo capito bene. Cos’e’ Babilonia? Ho pensato che fosse una scuola di lingua.
Yes, BABILONIA is a language school nestled near the Greek theatre on the same plot of protected land. I’m working on an article for Transitionsabroad.com about my week there in October. To me, the school is the gem in Taormina!
I’ve just returned from three weeks in Sicily and am about to write an article about BABILONIA in Taormina. You DO know about this gem, right? We explored eastern Sicilia after my week at school. What a magical area!
Ciao Luisa! Sounds like you had a great experience in Sicily! Yes, in fact my wife is from Messina, just a short drive from Taormina…and you’re right, a GEM! I can’t wait to go this summer…ciao!
What a great idea/initiative. 🙂 Sadly the south of Italy seems neglected in terms of American tourism (at least compared to the usual Rome-Florence-Venice standard). Tours like this would be really helpful, especially for navigation and a look into local life. Anthony Bourdain has never gotten Sicily just right, you should invite him along to film. 😉
What a great idea! Although I’m not quite as willing to eat “spleen sandwiches” and the like, which makes for good television, for some reason. But yes, Sicily is still very unknown to American tourists. You get the occasional Italian-American family going back to their grandparents’ village, but other than that, Sicily isn’t quite on most people’s map yet. And it is FULL of wonderful treasures. Non vedo l’ora!
Oh wow. Are you really going to start giving/doing tours in Sicily? Will this be a long term thing or just in 2014? One day I would live to return there and perhaps visit the east side of the region. Loved the western part of Sicily :). Looking forward to reading more about your tours. Cheers.
Hey Joce! We’re going to see how it goes, but the idea would be to make it a regular things, probably spring and fall. Yes, the east side is great, whereas I haven’t seen the entire west side yet, so I’m looking forward to it this spring…ciao bella!!
Just a minor correction: the region’s name is just “Marche”, without the “le” article. BTW; I was in Siracusa in August 2012… God, the heat! 🙂
The heat? Oh, well, I’m from Florida, so the heat never bothers me! (Thanks for the correction) Ciao!
Sounds great, Rick! I’m in but with a caveat that you join me in a pane con milza, stigghiola, and some frittola!!!
Of course, I assumed that was implied!
Sounds like a great way to see Sicily for the third time–if I only could before 2015! Ah well! Since I think it does sound great and since I enjoy your columns so much, I will not make too snide a former English teacher comment. I will only ask would you say, “tour Sicily with I”? I didn’t think so!
Hi Joan…oh, no! Did me really do that? How embarrassing. Thanks for not being snide. 😉 But Jess and I will probably go back to Sicily in 2015, too, so stay tuned. It would also be a good chance for language exchange: Jess could help you learn some Sicilian dialect and you can help me improve my English. 🙂 Ciao!!!
P.S. (Thanks for pointing out my error…correcting it now.)