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Andiamo! - Two Weeks in Sicily

November 27, 2001

"God first made the world, and then he made the Straits of Messina to separate men from madmen"

Sicilian proverb

Two Weeks in Sicily - A Family History Scouting Trip

If you are an regular reader of the Maine Farmhouse Journal entries, you have been exposed to a few of our sometimes notorious but always interesting Crabtree family ancestors. You have read tales of John Crabtree, our early emmigrant from England to Boston in the 1630's. There have been stories about our pirate/privateer ancestor Captain Agreen Crabtree, his son privateer Captain William Crabtree, my Uncle Charlie and his tapeworm, slave-holder Benjamin Crabtree, and others. I have burdened you with accounts of our annual Crabtree family reunions in Hancock, Maine.

All this family history stuff interests me - I hope it does you also. I firmly believe that we are a reflection of our ancestors (see quotation from Chancellor L. Jenks in the Crabtree Reunion 2001 journal entry), and the more we know about them, the more we know about ourselves.

You may have noticed the absence of any yarns about Penny's family. We haven't done a lot of research into her family history, but the little we do know entices us to learn more. Her grandparents on her father's side emigrated from Sicily sometime around the turn of the century. As so many new immigrants to America did, unfortunately, they Anglicized their names, spoke English in the home, and spoke little of the old country. We know, for example, that the family name was changed from Riggi to Reggie, and her father's name was changed from Salvatore to Samuel. Beyond that, however, she does not know any family history from Sicily, the town they came from, any lost cousins or uncles that there may be in Sicily, or much of anything else. It is a blank spot that we want to fill.

Stefania, our perky and pretty
Sicilian tour guide for our tour

When the brochure came in the mail from Grand Circle Travel last year offering a 15-day tour of Sicily, we were very interested. The list of places the tour would visit, the price, and the chance to get an overview of Sicily - these all were enticing. We'd never been on an organized travel tour before, and had heard horror tales from others about poor accomodations, stranded air travellers, hidden costs, too much emphasis on gift shops where the tour had a "kick-back" arrangement, ... The Grand Circle tour seemed more organized, and the itinerary covered the island but with time for individual exploration. And, if you paid early there was a substantial discount. All told, the full package of air travel, hotels, American plan meals, tour guides and local transportation was substantially less than if we'd done the bookings and rentals ourselves. We were sold. Most importantly, it would give us a good flavour of the island so that when we come back to reconnect with Penny's relations we would be a little better prepared.

Sicily - Italy, but not quite Italian

When you look at a map of Italy, the island of Sicily looks like a triangular-shaped football about to be kicked by the "boot" of Italy. There is a lot of truth in this symbology. North Africa is only 100 miles (160 km) south of Sicily's south coast, and Italy is only 1.5 miles (3 km) east of its eastern coast. Sicily was in the center of the Mediterranean and divided the ancient world into two pices. The ancient superpowers could settle for domination of one side of the sea or the other - but to control both, they had to possess Sicily.

Sicily has for centuries been a football that has been fought over by the Phoenicians, Corinthians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards, British, Italians, Fascists, Germans, Allies, the Mafia, and now the European Union. All the nations around the Mediterranean have shaped Sicilian history. All the languages spoken around the Mediterranean have been spoken in Sicily. Sicily has been subjugated and plundered throughout recorded history for its strategic location, fertile lands, art treasures, and endless supply of slaves, mercenaries, and feudal peasants. Palermo's advertising slogan today is "Invade Sicily, everyone else has!"

Sicily is at the center of the Mediterranean.
It is different in appearance, feel and culture from the rest of Italy.

The first island settlers were the Sicani, the Siculi, and the Elymni. They battled over the years. At one point, the Siculi defeated the Sicani in battle, drove them to the south and west of the island, and gave the island the name of Sicily (instead of Sicania). The rivalry between westerners (i.e. Palermo) and easterners (i.e. Catania) persists to modern times, as we were reminded several times by our tour guide, Stefania.

Invaders over the centuries have conquered and have left their mark on the island - but each successive conquerer has been amazingly tolerant of earlier ones. In Arab times and Norman times both, rulers allowed "Latins, Greeks, Jews, and Saracens be judged according to their own laws." The architecture was a rich blend of cultures. We saw numerous examples of Roman theatres built on earlier Greek theatres, of Norman churches modifying and using Greek temples, of Norman forts built on the base of Saracen fortifications, of Baroque decorations on Byzantine churches.

During all these centuries of foreign masters, the Sicilians have adapted to each one while maintaining a culture of their own. Although Italian is the language of the land, Sicilian dialect is different from Italian, and includes numerous words borrowed from their former Arab and Greek occupiers (for example, the chief fisherman on tuna fishing expeditions is called the rais, a Moorish title, and the chant when the tuna net is pulled tight by the fishermen has an arabic chorus).

The symbol of Sicily

Sicily is the largest of the Italian states, and since 1946 has been granted regional autonomy by the Italian Parliament. However, Sicilians are not shy in pointing out that they are Sicilians, not Italians. On the island, unemployment is high, resources are limited, and political connection is very important in getting anything done. Everywhere we traveled we saw private and public works that stood idle and only partially completed, restorations of ancient works that are still "ongoing" after 20 years - whether from lack of funds or bureaucratic inertia we couldn't tell. For example, the Palermo to Messina highway began construction 27 years ago and we saw unfinished towers and overpasses everywhere along the north coast. In Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa comments on the state of being Sicilian: "Sicilians never wish to improve for the simple reason that they believe themselves perfect. Their vanity is stronger than their misery. Every invasion by outsiders...upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, and risks disturbing their self-satisfied waiting for nothing at all."

Time and time again we met Sicilians who were well educated but frustrated in finding meaningful work opportunities on the island. Penny's grandparents emigrated to the States, as many others did - we assume to seek a better life with more opportunity. The percentage of Sicilians among Italian immigrants to America is significantly high, considering the population of Sicily in relation to the rest of Italy.

Despite all this, we found Sicily to be a charming place, with a fascinating culture, and friendly people. We also found a place and people that are complex, and that a short 15-day tour cannot hope to do more than just scratch the surface. We did get, however, a good flavour of a delightful place that we plan on revisiting. Here are some of the places we visited on our tour.


Small fishing boats at anchor
in front of the hotel

Our hotel for 6 days was located on the Tyrolean Sea coast about 1/2 hour east of Palermo. This was a good location, out of the traffic and noise of Palermo, but close for day trips to spots up and down the north coast of Sicily. From here we visited the cathedral towns of Cefalu, Monreale, the Greek temple at Segesta, the hilltop town of Erice, ceramic factories in Santo Stefano di Camastra, and Palermo itself. The town of Trabia is a small, delightful place to stroll.

Cefalu and the 1130 cathedral
of Roger II is just
down the coast

The hotel is an old tuna factory, redone into a tourist hotel and called, aptly, "Hotel Tonnara" (Tuna is tonno in Italian, and a system of chambered nets to catch them is called tonnara). Tuna fishing is an annual Sicilian rite, although not as important as it used to be. Tuna spawn in Sicily's warm spring waters, and they are captured in a tonnara, nets introduced by the Arabs in the 9th century. The season lasts from May to mid-June.

Linda and Stefano

Our group started out as 27, but quickly grew to 28. Janet and Linda (their veterinarian husbands are at home in NH dealing with their practices) adopted a stray cat they found in Trabia. Actually, the cat "adopted" them - they were out for an evening stroll in town and the cat followed them home. Apparently it had recently been abandoned and picked a couple of good people to attach itself to.

The gals made a quick train trip to Palermo with the cat to get its shots and health certificate, and planned on bringing it home with them. When it got back to the hotel it ate its supper and promptly bedded down in the bidet. We had one more traveling companion on the bus for the rest of the trip, and on the plane back to Boston at the end of our tour.

The cat was officially named "Stefania" in honor of our tour guide. However, neither the local veterinarian or the gals from New Hampshire actually checked real close. Later, Linda and Janet discovered that they had a boy cat on their hands, and the name was quickly changed to "Stefano". The cat didn't seem to care, one way or another. Nor did it mind that it was now being talked to in English - as long as the food came at regular intervals.

I got an e-mail from Janet a couple of days after returning to the states. Stefano went to his new home, and has an eight-year old brother as black as he is. The transplant was a success!

Sicilian Folk Dancers from Trabia
entertained us one night

Penny got a personal serenade

All along the roads as we travel are orchards of olive trees being harvested. A cloth is spread on the ground under the trees to catch the fallen fruit. The olives are taken to olive presses and pressed into olive oil. The first pressing is "extra virgin" olive oil, the best quality. We were able to purchase some at an Agri-Touristo farm later in the week, where we stopped for lunch and entertainment. Also being harvested were oranges and lemons and other citrus fruits. Fresh fruit was available everywhere we went - it was really very good!

A Sicilian folk group sang for our lunch

We had lunch at this farm with olive groves

Pottery shop in Santo Stefano di Camastra

The meals every day were a treat - pasta and wine at every lunch and dinner, and a big buffet at breakfast. We were all a little spoiled at being catered to for three meals a day, and missed it once we came home and had to fix our own grub. At each hotel there was an open bar for wine, beer, sodas - grappa and compare were extra, however. I tried grappa one time, and that was sufficient to know that I am not a grappa drinker. It is made from the "leavings" from wine making - the seeds, pulp, stems, and pulp - which is then distilled into a potent clear liquor that smells like bad moonshine, and tastes worse. I suppose like many things it is an acquired taste, but I have no desire to acquire it.

The only complaint with our meals was the Sicilian version of "American coffee". I guess this was a concession by our hosts to what they thought Americans like to drink. However, it neither smelled nor tasted like coffee as we know it, and it looked like used motor oil - thick, black, and viscous. The cappuchino and latte were fine, but the "American coffee" was not. That really was the only point of complaint in our 15 day tour however.

Vivid colors are common in Sicilian pottery

Applying glaze to a bowl

One morning was spent in the village of Santo Stefano di Camastra, just east along the coast from Trabia. It is a coastal resort famed locally for its colourful ceramic work. The main street is lined with shops displaying their wares. There are colorful dishes, figurines, jugs, bowls, and all manner of ceramics. As part of our tour we went to a factory where ceramics are made, and were shown how pots are "thrown", baked in kilns, and how the colourful glazes are applied by hand.

Palermo and Monreale - Rival Cathedral Cities

Palermo is Sicily's capital and largest city (although Catania is close behind in population). Palermo was originally a Phoenician colony from the eighth century BC. It has seen Greek, Roman, Arab, Spanish, and Byzantine rulers. Today, Palermo is known as the noisiest city in Europe. It is a fascinating, confusing mix of architecture, with streets running in all directions from the Quattro Canti di Citta (the Four Corners of the City).

One of the most fascinating spots was the Palermo Archaeological Museum, with displays from the first cave-man settlers in Sicily through the several eras of various conquerors.

Palermo Archaeological Museum

Penny studying her guidebook

We visited the Palermo Duomo, the first of several architectural "hybrids" we would see in Sicily. This is a combination of Arab, Norman and Baroque styles. Built under Norman rule using Arab craftsmen, it is unlike any cathedral I'd ever seen before. Here are the royal tombs of Norman kings Frederick II, Henry VI, and Roger II done in rare pink porphyry.

Column carving at the Palermo Duomo

Monreale Duomo

One day we travelled to Monreale, a small hill-town just eight kilometres up the valley from Palermo. The unusual aspect of Monreale is its Duomo, bult in the reign of King William II. The King established a Cathedral there so that he could name his own archbishop to counter his rival in Palermo, Archbishop Walter of the Mill. The Monreale Duomo was begun in 1172, and finished in 1183. William II is buried there. The Duomo is a wonderful mix of Greek and Byzantine mosaics married with Norman styles, and to realize that this structure was completed in only about 10 years is amazing.

Christ in benediction at the Monreale Duomo

Tradional Sicilian pony cart

We enjoyed lunch one day at the beach resort town of Mondello, about eleven kilometres west along the coast from Palermo. In high season, this is a popular place, with beaches, hotels, and plenty of outdoor terrace restaurants. In early December, however, it was a quiet place and we were the only ones in the restaurant where we had lunch. The beach and shore views were still wonderful, and much warmer than had we been in Maine at this time of year.

Tyrolean Seacoast from Mondello

An ancient bath tub

Potter decorating a mug in Palermo

Segesta and Erice - Elymni Towns

We spent a day at Segesta to look at the old Greek temple, and at Erice to visit the ancient temple of Aphrodite Erycina. These towns are on the western coast, west of Palermo. Segesta was founded by the Elymni, a people whose language has yet to be transcribed. The settlers claimed to be refugees who escaped the Fall of Troy. Segesta was at one time a major city in western Sicily, and was sacked by Siracusa in 307 BC. All that remains of this ancient city is a partially completed Doric temple and a Greek theatre. The temple dates from a time of prosperous alliance with Athens, but it was never finished. The work on it was abandoned when a dispute broke out with neighboring Selinus in 416 BC.

The Segesta Greek temple - 424 BC

Our local temple guide

Even unfinished, the temple is awesome. We were allowed to walk around and in it - something that we were not allowed to do in the other Greek temples we saw. As was the custom during our entire tour, we picked up a local tour guide for the day's trip. Apparently in Italy there is testing and certification required of tour guides. Our own tour guide Stefania, even though she could have served us well in this stead, was obligated to employ new guides for each place we visited. This was not all bad, and we often got broader views and interpretations as a result.

The temple interior

Norman castle at Erice

Erice is an equisite medieval town located on a steep hill, encircled with Punic and Norman fortifications. The town shows evidence of occupation by Carthaginia, Spain, and the Normans. The town was founded by the Elymni, as was Segesta. They worshipped the Mediterranean fertility goddess known as Astarte to the Elymni and Phoenicians, Aphrodite to the Greeks, and Venus to the Romans. Each spring, the goddess flew off with an escort of doves to spend time at her shrine in what is now Tunisia. Her return signalled the reawakening of nature in Sicily.

Tryolean Sea from Erice

Erice church

Erice was infamous throughout the Mediterranean for its cult of sacred prostitution at the temple. Sailors would dock at Trapani and climb the steep hill to "worship" at the temple. This practice continued into Roman times. Unfortunately, all the temple prostitutes are long gone, as well as the devout sailors. There are great views of the western coast of the island, however - Erice sits on the highest point in northwestern Sicily. We wandered through the town, visited the Norman fortifications and enjoyed the views.

Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples

The Temple of Juno/Hera at night

Our tour guide Stefania promised a surprise one night, and a delightful one it was at that. Perched atop a ridge south of the west coast town of Agrigento, Sicily, the Temples of Juno, Concord, and Zeus are lighted at night and dominate the night sky. There were originally 10-12 Greek temples erected in the Valley of the Temples in the 5th century BC. They surrounded a prosperous community in Greek Sicily, described as rivaling Athens in the splendour of its temples. The Insight Guide describes Akragas (the Greek name for Agrigento) as having a hedonistic lifestyle that made it the Los Angeles of the ancient world.

Unfortunately, the Akragasanians were apparently better lovers than fighters, and the city was overrun and sacked by the Cathaganians in the 4th century BC. Instructions to the Greek soldiers on watch during the seige give an indication of the problem - they were under strict orders to make do with no more than 2 mattresses, 2 pillows, and a blanket each while on watch. Still, the city resisted the seige for eight months before falling.

The Temple of Juno/Hera by day

The well-preserved Temple of Concord

Today the foundations of the town and the catacombs are clearly visible with the on-going archaeological work. The Temple of Concord is nearly intact since it was converted to a Christian church and was in use for centuries. Six other temples are in various stages of ruin, but the remaining columns and stonework are very impressive. Just walking on the site makes you feel somehow humble - all the history that has taken place here is staggering! It is hard to believe that on this site civilization thrived 2,500 years ago! And we think that 200-300 years is ancient history in New England. We're mere babies when it comes to history.

Greek grafitti on prickly pear cactus

View toward the Rock Santuary of Demeter

The day was bright with a clear view of the sea, and the recent rains had started the flowers and grasses growing. In another month the hillsides will be covered with the flowers from the almond trees in bloom.

Piazza Armerina - Roman Pleasure Spot

The Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina, was built in the 3rd to the 4th century BC by either (1) a wealthy and powerful Roman family as a summer retreat/hunting lodge, or (2) Roman Emporor Maximianus Heraclius. The story varies according to which guide/guidebook you refer to. What is consistent, however, is the history that the Villa was used by the Romans throughout their reign on Sicily, then throughout the Arab period, and was destroyed by the Norman King William in 1160. Subsequently it was covered in a thick layer of mud from the surrounding hills during heavy storms, and was forgotten for 700 years. Serious excavations began only about 50 years ago and rich Roman mosaics were found decorating the 50 rooms of the Villa. The mosaic floors are unique throughout the Roman world in their quality and extent, and are said to surpass even the mosaics of Pompeii in their colors and artistry.

We stopped off at the Villa today on our long bus trip from the south coast at Agrigento to the east coast at Taormina, in the shadow of Mt Etna. The stop was well worth it, and the images I've posted here don't begin to capture the rich colors of the mosaics. A series of elevated catwalks let us roam through the Villa, still being excavated, and see the mosaics in each room.

There is a 30 meter long Corridor of the Great Hunt, with scenes of Romans capturing exotic wildlife in Africa and Asia and shipping it back to Rome. The corridor includes a mosaic of the exotic, bare-breasted Queen of Sheba being ogled by a tiger as well as by heterosexual Romans. Nature gets its revenge, however - one panel at the end of the corridor depicts a winged gryphon clutching a cage with its claws - in the cage is a terrified human on whom the tables have turned - no longer the collector, but the collected!

Cyclops Polyphemus

One of the "bikini girls"

In the Hall of the Lessor Hunt are scenes of deer and boar hunting, falconing, and a post-hunt feast in the woods. In the Room of the Ten Maidens girls in skimpy bikinis are cavorting at sport - and I always thought bikinis were a modern invention by Chanel in the 1950's!

There is a Circus Hall illustrating chaotic races at the Circus Maximus, decorated guest chambers, and the family quarters. In the amatory antechamber to the Imperial bedchamber are several erotic mosaics, I guess to put the royal couple in the mood. In the Great Hall the labours of Hercules are shown, and in another the legend of the Cyclops is shown. It was even more meaningful to see the mosaics displayed in the context of the rooms where they were originally created rather than being stuck in museum somewhere.

Snaring deer in the Hall of the Lesser Hunt

An erotic mosaic from
the amatory antechamber

Siracusa - City of Archimedes

One day some of us went to Siracusa on the eastern coast of Sicily. On the way, we saw the toe of Italy's boot just across the Straits of Messina, and several of the extinct cones of volcanic Mt Etna. At one time, Siracusa was the greatest city in Europe. Its Athenian Greek heritage is still clearly evident.

The Greek Theatre at Neapolis

One of Siracusa's most famous past residents was Archimedes. Enroute, our guide Stefania recounted the folk-lore tale about him discovering the principle of specific gravity while sitting in his bath tub, and running down the streets of Siracusa in the buff shouting "Eureka". Conventional wisdom, however, has pretty much discounted this as pure fable. Actually Archimedes made his discovery while testing a gold cup suspected of being a mere alloy. He realized that the water displaced by an object was equal to the object's weight, not its volume. He thus discovered the principle of specific gravity and the basis for hydrostatistics.

Archimedes was both in 287 BC, and worked for Hieron, the Tyrant of Siracusa, as a thinker, mathematician, and engineer. His engineering feats included the Archidean screw (still used for raising water), a system of magnifying glasses to set fire to the Roman fleet at long range, and a hydraulic device that allowed one man to operate a ship's pumps. His hydraulic theories were put into practice in building a 4,000-ton ship of timber covered with lead for Hieron. Unfortunately, this genius was hacked to death by a Roman soldier in Roman commander Marcellus' successful invasion of Siracusa.

The Ear of Dionsyius

An alley in Porta Marina

Being captured by the Siracusans and assigned to work in their quarries was pretty much a death sentence. Slaves were lowered into the quarries and left there to work, starve, and die. No guards were needed since the only way in or out was via the lift - the quarry walls were a sheer 100 feet high. Over the years, the quarry provided stone for the theatre, monuments, and the wonderful array of Greek and Roman art in the city.

Today, we were able to walk down into the the quarry amid lush shrubbery that had been planted there. We visited the Ear of Dionysius, a cave carved out of the rock in the shape of an upside-down ear lobe. It was so named by poet/painter Caravaggio. The folklore from our Siracusa guide Pepito was that the cave was used by Dionysius to eavesdrop on his prisoners. Apparently, however, this was a tale that Caravaggio made up - there is no evidence that such a use was ever made of the cave.

The Siracusa Duomo is located on Ortigia Island, connected to the main city by a bridge. This baroque cathedral is built over a Greek Temple of Apollo in a very interesting melding of several architectural styles.

Our Siracusa guide Pepito

Stone flooring in the Siracusa Duomo

We were also able to visit the Roman Amphitheatre at Neapolis, Hieron II's altar, the Roman Amphitheatre, and Siracusa's Duomo - and then lunch, and the day was gone! We didn't have time to see nearly enough of the neat stuff in this city, like the Catacombs and museums.

Did you know that Siracusa once was the gastronomic capital of the Classical world? In 5 BC the first known cookbook in the west was written by Mithaecus (Lost Art of Cooking), and Siracusa had the first school for chefs. So many things to see - so little time. Oh well, maybe on the next trip.

Taormina - City on a Cliff

The views of Mt Etna from the Teatro Greco (Greek theatre) at the upper end of Taormina would have been breathtaking - if Mt Etna had not been shrouded in clouds most of the day. We stayed at Taormina for 6 days, and were hopeful every day that we would get a clear view of its snow-capped heights. On one day the clouds parted over Mt Etna for a brief period, then went back into hiding. This is what it should look like on a clear day.

Mt. Etna from the Greek Theatre

Taormina started as a Siculi settlement at the foot of Mount Tauro, and then like most of Sicily has seen a succession of settlers/rulers over the centuries. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spanish, Italians, and the Germans in WW II have all conquered Taormina in turn, and have left their mark on the place.

What the tour guides don't mention in their talks on Taormina is its brief but infamous history as an international homosexual haunt. The resort was first made popular as a gay gathering place in the late 1700's, and gained a reputation as "the flower of European pederasty" in the late 1800's. Wilhelm von Gloeden, a German photographer, shocked audiences with his pictures of lithe peasant boys. Oscar Wilde helped von Gloeden pose his subjects. Bavarian author Gayelord Hauser (Hollywood's dietician to the stars) published a book on the secrets of eternal youth that had a recipe of yoghurt, lettuce, and trips to Taormina. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams were regular guests at Hauser's parties in Taormina and enjoyed Sicilian boys. Somerset Maugham and Anatole France were familiar figures in Taormina, indulging in the "the Disneyland of sin". D.H. Lawrence lived in Taormina for several years in the 1920's, but apparently led a dull, virtuous life. During this time he wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover supposedly based on the sexual exploits of his wife Frieda with a Sicilian muleteer, however.

But, all that is in the past. Although there have been police raids on hotspots as recently as 1993, since the 1930's Taormina has been a respectable, fairly crime-free, resort town with visitors and families from around the world.

The coast of the Mediterranean
below Taormina

Built on the side of a cliff, Taormina sits at nearly 1,000' above the Mediterrean Sea. We arrived in town at the "low season", with no crowds and plenty of time for trips down to the beach (with a finicular to ride back up), or for leisurely strolls down Corso Umberto. This is the main street of town where most cars are banned and tourists have shops of every kind to visit.

We all enjoyed strolling the streets of Taormina, window shopping and taking in the sights. The Giardino Pubblico, well-kept public gardens with wonderful views of the seacoast and town, is a delightful spot. The park was bequeathed to Taormina by Englishwoman Florence Trevelyan in the 1920's. The park includes a large memorial to Taormina's fallen in WWI and WWII, and every olive tree in the park bears memorial plaques to the soldiers and sailors of the two wars.

The rules of park conduct are carefully posted in Italian at the entrance, spelling out forbidden activities and the amount of fines that transgressors would receive for each violation. For eating and littering in the park - fines of 50,000 to 200,000 lira. For playing a radio loudly to disturb others, 50,000 to 200,000 lira. For walking around topless ( it doesn't specify male or female - I assume either) or in bathing suits - 50,000 to 200,000 lira. I asked Stefania, our guide, "What would the fine be if you were topless, playing a radio loudly, and eating at the same time - 150,000 lira?" She threw up her hands at yet another dumb question from a tourist! We had found on our trip, however, that Sicily has a lot of rules and most people ignore them (e.g.- wearing seatbelts, observing "no smoking" signs, no passing over a solid line,...)

An artist in the park

...and his subject

The public gardens

Memorial plaques were
mounted on olive trees

We finished most of our Christmas shopping and packed an extra suitcase we brought with us, plus a cardboard box I pulled from the trash before the street sweepers got to it. I found a hardware store to buy strapping tape, and cushioned the lot with dirty socks and underwear - luckily the box didn't break open in transit - grappa mixed with old socks in the middle of the airport would have been very messy. Here are some scenes from the streets and shops:

Taormina street scene

Creches were everywhere in the shops

Present day angels

Fruit made of marzipan

Decorated jug

Our "Assault" on Mt. Etna

All week long we've been waiting for the clouds to clear from the summit of Mt Etna so that we could get a clear view of this 10,000'+ active volcano. It toyed with us every day - like a stripper who reveals a shoulder here, a hint of her arm there. But Mt. Etna is either an extremely shy stripper, or one with a perverse sense of humour. The best views we got were our first day in Taormina from the parking lot of our hotel, where she showed us her summit cone for a couple of minutes before the clouds rolled back in. The rest of the week we've seen her toes and sometimes her ankles, but that is it.

Today, however, we were going to see her close up. The road, newly constructed over a recent lava flow, would take us to about the 6,000' level. Lots of views of the various lava flows from years past, and the numerous cones from these eruptions on Mt Etna's flank. And, for a New England boy, a chance to romp in the snow that covers the cone like a blanket. There is skiing on the mountain in winter, and we saw a couple of cars with skis on top.

This is the closest that we got to the summit of Mt Etna

The day didn't quite turn out as we had expected, however. But then, we've rather come to expect the unplanned in Sicily. Giuseppe wound our Volvo tour bus through the narrow streets of the villages that flirt with fate on Mt Etna's slopes. As we climbed higher, the eruption cones and lava flows became more evident. The older lava has deteriorated into rich, black soil, and it is planted to vineyards and citrus orchards. Higher up we could see the remains of houses that had been destroyed by lava. The hardwood forests thrived, but here and there were isolated islands of trees encircled by lava.

Our bus amid the lava flows

Cooled lava close up

Stefania listed off the dates of the various eruptions as we passed through the lava, now cooled and solidified. The road climbed higher into the layer of clouds that cloaked the summit - the same ones we've been looking at from Taormina all week. We came around a corner, and all of a sudden we reached the elevation where the lava field was dotted with snow. And, most fun - the road was covered with ice! It was great to walk around on, but the wheels of the cars were spinning and going nowhere on the ice.

Giuseppe pulled over in a turnout, next to a blue municipal bus. The other bus had put their chains on, and there were several cars who had been parked. Their occupants had transferred to the bus to go further up the mountain. Giuseppe got out the chains for our bus, and with the help of the driver and helper from the municipal bus, got them installed. The Italian tire chains have an interesting set of three links that can be cinched tight with a lever - much more efficient than the system on US tire chains, and much less wear-and-tear on cold fingers.

Giuseppe spreading
the tire chains

One of our group,
Alvin wore sandals everywhere!

While we were doing this however, a motor home had pulled in right in front of our bus. The people then attempted to put their own chains on - but each time they put one on, the other one came off. All this time, Giuseppe is asking them to move so that we could get back on the road. Stefania got out and spoke very rapid Italian with hand signals that she hadn't taught us. All they had to do was back down 10 ' to give us room to move. Other people talked to them as well. But all this was no avail - they were going to stay right where they were until they finished what they were doing.

At one point there must have been a dozen people standing out on the ice in the cold, waving their arms and all talking very loud and fast. And nothing getting done. Whenever someone came up to give their opinion, the folks with the motor home stopped what they were doing to argue back. Stefania pointed out, with some ire in her voice, that we were getting a first-hand education in the Italian political process. This is why it takes so long to build anything, and helped explain the half-completed buildings and highways we'd seen ever since we arrived on Sicily.

There is an old Sicilian saying that we had just learned about first hand: Chi gioca solo gioca bene - "The man who plays alone always wins".

Putting on the chains

The neat lever tool for tightening chains

Finally we were able to get out on the road. By this time, however, the cloud layer had lowered so there was no point in going higher. And the mountain rangers in their brown uniforms and Boy Scout hats had arrived and were closing off the road. So we turned around and headed down the mountain for cappuchino and a potty break at the first cafe we came across. As we parked to take our chains off, the motor home zoomed by us, finally admitting defeat and heading off the mountain to annoy someone else downslope. Mt Etna had won another round, and we'll have to wait for another trip to Sicily to see her in all her naked glory.

Our luncheon hosts, plus Milden

Rite in her kitchen preparing cappuchino

We were met at the foot of Mt. Etna by four Sicilian families. Stefania divided us into four groups and we trooped off after our hosts for lunch in a Sicilian home. What a treat! Susanne Gullo and her sister Giovanne led us to their comfortable home in Castiglione, where we met her mother and several friends of the family. No one in their family spoke English, and none of us spoke Italian. We managed quite well, however, with the German and French we had between us, plus extensive use of Italian-English dictionaries that she and I had to refer to. We had a fine lunch, learned a little about their family, and were very pleased with the home-made red wine of Susanne's father Gullo. Susanne and I have exchanged e-mails, and we have sent off some real Maine maple syrup to them as a token of our appreciation for opening their home to us.

Catania - Home of the "Lava Heads"

We awoke to rain on the day of our trip to Catania - the first real rain we've had on the trip. There have been a couple of days where there were short showers in the beginning, and we got a little snow on Mt Etna, but this was real, honest-to-God rain that came down the entire time we were at Catania and the Cyclops Coast. Some of us ventured out of the bus to take a look at the harbor and boats at Aci Trezza (the Three Needles), just north of Catania on the Cyclops Coast. The rain came down sideways and the waves smashed over the quay - very dramatic, and very wet.

Aci Trezza is the place in the Odyssey where the Cyclops Polyphemus threw huge boulders after he was blinded by Ulysses and Ulysses and his companions escaped captivity. Just up the coast is Ulysses Harbor, where legend has it that Ulysses landed his boat.

Fishing boats and one of the "needles"

The storm was driving rain sideways

Catania on Sicily's east coast is the chief rival to western Palermo. Catania was first settled by the Siculi in 729 BC. It was an ally to Athens, and lost out to Siracusa in 403 BC - most of the Catanians were sold into slavery or assigned to the Siracusa quarries. The Romans also conquered Catania in turn.

"Umbrella? Only 10,000 lira!"

Catania was the first Sicilian city we had seen with fairly broad streets and a rectangular street layout - north/south and east/west. The Catanians had a bit of help in their city planning however. The city lies at the foot of Mt Etna, and has been nearly wiped off the face of the map by eruptions, lava flows, and earthquakes. Many of the buildings we saw had their foundation and lower half-story made of porous volcanic rock. Our guide for the day explained that not only was the lava rock readily available and cheap, the locals also felt that the porous nature of it would be a natural "shock absorber" when the next earthquake came along. The guide said that Catanians are known in Sicily as "lava-heads", mainly because of their stubborness in rebuilding their city over and over again in the same location - at least nine times by her reckoning.

The enterprising award of the day had to go to a group of three or four black umbrella sellers, standing out in the rain and offering a variety of umbrellas for sale to passers by. Their prices were about the same as what you would pay at the shops in Taormina on a fair day, so they weren't gouging their customers. These are the first blacks I'd seen on the trip.

Most of the bus followed the guide into the heavy downpour to walk through La Pescheria, the fish market. More of a farmers' market than just a fish market, there were also stalls selling fresh vegetables and fruits, butchershops, and cheese vendors. The vendors were shouting and hawking their wares - all very exciting. The streams of water coming off the awnings and running in torrents down the stone floors added to it - but I think it would have been much more pleasant with better weather.

Fresh swordfish

A fruit seller

A Catanian fish-monger

...and another

Lamb and goat?

...or pig head?

Then to the Catania Duomo, a combination church and Norman fortress, complete with a mummified priest and icons to St. Agatha. Catania's patron saint is Saint Agatha. She was martyred in AD 253 by being rolled in hot coals and having her breasts cut off. On festival days her relics are paraded through the streets, and street vendors sell hot rolls in the shape of breasts to commemorate her martyrdim. Pieces of her veil are waved in the face of oncoming volcanic lava flows with mixed results.

Fontane dell'Elefante

Vaccarini's fountain of the elephant is in the square outside the cathedral, and features an antique black volcanic elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk taken from the Roman circus. We heard the story of how this symbol of Catania, the elephant, got its sex.

Stefania's father came to the Duomo to meet her and she introduced him to us. There is a lot of family resemblence. Later we saw where Stefania's folks lived, where she went to kindergarten and elementary school, high school, and university. When we got back to Taormina the rain stopped, of course.

Catania is an interesting town, and I wish we could have spent the entire day there. With better weather I would have liked to spend more time at the fishing villages that are north of Catania as well. We have received via e-mail the survey from Grand Circle, and will add that along with some other comments that we think would enhance the trip. All in all, however, our side trip to Catania in the rain was well worth while.

And then back home to Maine

It seemed like we had just gotten started on our tour. The only thing that should have tipped us off that our Holiday was coming to a close was the extra inches around my waist from three large meals a day, including pasta, and the growing pile of dirty socks and underwear in the suitcase. We'd had a very favorable experience with Grand Circle Travel and were pleased with everything that they had arranged for us. The pace of the tour was just right, with enough personal time to do what we wanted without feeling pushed.

Penny and Allen in Monreale

The early morning Alitalia flight from Catania to Milano, and then the Alitalia flight to Boston, all went without a hitch (as compared to the fogged-in Milano airport and several hour delay in arriving at the beginning of our trip). Five of us, plus Stefano, traveled to Boston and made it easily through security and customs. Fellow traveler Alvin caught his bus to Provincetown just as our bus to Portsmouth arrived. As we pulled out, heading north to New Hampshire and Maine, we saw Janet and Linda were loading Stefano and their bags into their limo.

Our fellow tourers were interesting and personable, and we picked up a lot of tips from them on places around the globe to visit (or not to visit). Most of the folks on the tour with us had travelled a lot before, many with Grand Circle Travel. Getting to know some of them was a big plus that we hadn't anticipated, and we hope to keep in contact. With 19 of the 27 having e-mail, that will be much easier.

I had a chance to try out my new digital Sony Mavica camera, and was very pleased. It was nice being able to see the results of photography immediately, and to e-mail selected images off to family and friends every night from the hotel room so that they could "travel along" with us. I still took about 15 rolls of snapshots with my Pentax pocket zoom, but all the photos in this Maine Farmhouse Journal entry are from the digital camera. For those readers who expected something about Maine, or the Farmhouse, or something along the lines of the stuff I usually write - my apologies, but we were so pleased with this trip to Sicily that I wanted to share it with you.

Allen Crabtree

Information on Sicily comes from:

Andrews, Robert and Jules Brown. Sicily - The Rough Guide. The Rough Guides, London, 1997.
Ausenda, Marco, Ed. Touring Club of Italy - Sicily, Touring Club of Italy, Milano, 1997.
Blanchard, Paul. Sicily & The Aeolian Islands - Passport's Regional Guides of Italy. Passport Books, Chicago, 1998.
Chamberlin, Russell. Michelin - Sicily in your pocket. Greenville, SC, 1998.
Duncan, Paul. Sicily: A Traveller's Guide. John Murray, London, UK, 1992.
Facaros, Dana and Michael Pauls. Sicily - Cadogan Island Guides. Cadogan Books, London, 1994.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand. Siciliana: Sketches of Naples and Sicily in the 19th Century. Bell & Sons, London, 1914.
Ordway, Donald. Sicily, Island of Fire. National Travel Club, NY, 1930.
Sharp, Lisa G, Ed. Insight Guides - Sicily. Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1993.
Simeti, Mary T. On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal. Knopf, NY, 1986.

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Last updated January 14, 2002

Copyright © 2000, Allen Crabtree