To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything. – Goethe
My last post a month ago anticipated our family visit to Italy, and, particularly, our first trip to Sicily LECCE AND LA SICILIA. Lecce, on the heel of the boot on the Adriatic coast, is the birthplace of my mother in law and we visit family there every three years. My husband, son, daughter in law and grandkids and I go to visit the aunts, uncles and cousins. Lecce never disappoints us with its beaches, antiquities and magnificent baroque architecture. But this year, for my husband and me, the crown jewel of our trip was Sicily, this rogue island just 2 miles from mainland Italy at its closest point. My Sicily-high is still very much with me!
My husband and I took our 6-day trip, with him driving us around the island from Palermo to Cefalu` to Santo Stefano di Camastra to Taormina, to Catania where we spent a few short hours on a relaxing Sunday, and then on to Agrigento. This route took us from the northern part of the island around the east coast and down around to the south, taking us to most of Sicily’s major cities, with the exception of Siracusa, Messina and Trapani.
My primary pull to Sicily is that this island is where my grandmother was born. I wanted to see the places that she saw, however altered they have become in the 112 years since she left there as young bride in her late teens to come to America. In addition I wanted to know if I could find out if there were still Serio’s – her maiden surname – and if there was anyone I could talk with about Santo Stefano during my visit. My cousin’s husband in Pennsylvania put me in touch with his cousin who lives there and a friend who was born and still lives in this town. Sitting in a cafe in Santo Stefano with my cousin’s friend, I asked him if he had any idea what the town might have looked like when my grandmother lived there. I actually went into the cafe and took some photos of the old pictures on the walls. He said that the footprint then was likely pretty much the same as what we saw. Of course, proper paved roads were put in, and buildings were updated. Many of the buildings we were looking at were most likely there when she was there since they were hundreds of years old, some dating from the 1600’s.
The town of about 5,000 inhabitants is known for its handmade pottery and ceramic artifacts, as well as agricultural production of wine grapes, citrus fruit, vegetables and olives. We happily bought a handmade pottery plate that now hangs in our dining room made by a local artisan in Santo Stefano.
Before I left, there was one place I dearly wanted to see – the Sanctuary of the Letto Santo. It’s a chapel sitting at the top of a mountain in Santo Stefano, a rendering of which is at the chapel at Holy Cross Park in Easton, PA, where many immigrants, including my grandparents, from Santo Stefano settled when they left Italy. The rendering is plainly visible in pictures of our family reunion that I wrote about last year COMING TOGETHER. My husband gingerly drove us up the winding road leading to the chapel and, as we turned a corner, there it was standing in front of me.
In preparation for our trip I tried to read as much as possible about Sicily. Universally ackowledged for its physical beauty, I have to say that much of what I read was not flattering to the island. In the readings, Sicily was often portrayed as poor, disorganized, perhaps dirty, struggling, corrupt and mafia-ridden. “To really appreciate this place, come with an open mind,” my guidebook cautioned.
Indeed Sicily carries stigma, complexities and mystique – but more interesting in some ways than the rest of Italy as I think Goethe was referencing in his quotation above. The cultural legacy alone boasts 25 centuries of foreign domination by civilizations such as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens and Normans, heritages that are deeply relevant, that left their diverse marks on every aspect of Sicily and that are recognized to this day. In 1860 Italy, and Sicily along with it, were unified as one nation. But, although unified, Sicilians were no better off. It’s telling that from 1871 to 1914, almost one million struggling Sicilians, including my grandparents, emigrated to the US.
In fact, our guide at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, an archeological site where ancient Greeks built their city of Akragas, talked about the astonishing amalgam of many cultural influences that makes this island what it is today. Throughout her tour, she would say, when discussing the factors that led to today and how things may or may not have changed with unification into Italy, “After we became Italian…”she would say as she proceeded to elaborate on what had happened. I found that phraseology interesting because I view a nationality as something you either are or you aren’t, not something you become but I think with respect to Sicily, that’s a fair assessment.
Regarding organized crime, its important to note that while the mafia still exists, it really seems to have had its heyday from about 1948 to sometime in the 1990’s. After World War II, the mafia gained its foothold when it was established as the administrator of the island in the absence of other suitable candidates for this semi-autonomous region. Starting in the 1980’s, large and powerful anti-mafia resistance movements started to have an impact. Now fewer and fewer businesses pay extortion protection money. New hot topics have taken over the consciousness such as the struggling economy and Sicily’s role as a gateway for the immigrants coming in from Northern Africa.
The natural beauty of Sicily is indeed awesome (I NEVER use the ubiquitous word “awesome” because I think it’s way overdone, so take note of the fact that I used it here). Neither my husband nor I were prepared adequately for the jaw-dropping beauty we saw at every turn.
Immense mountain ranges required that we navigate throughout the island in miles of tunnels, kilometers of farmland were evident, there was the volcanic majesty of Mt. Etna, the Turkish Steps in Realmonte near Agrigento and the aquamarine coastline that surrounds the island – it was just one beautiful site after another.
Enhancing nature is cosmopolitan elegance in cities like Catania and the medieval beauty of Taormina, once the capital of Byzantine Sicily in the 9th century, where we stayed at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, built on the original structures of a former Dominican monastery, dating back to the year 1430.
Sicily’s cuisine has its roots in its multi-cultural past. Sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, sometimes both. In all my reading, the one thing the authors could agree on was the high quality of the food. I knew it would be fabulous and it was. I ate very little meat while I was there – why would you, when you’re surrounded by seas full of the best, freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten. You can watch the fishermen come in in the mornings with their catches.
And the tomatoes! I ate tomatoes virtually every morning for breakfast and many times throughout the day. The color and the taste were beyond belief.
The olive oil – it is not that anemic yellow-ish green that we often see in the US. It is rich and dark green – from the very first olive pressings. The taste is crazy. And when there was nothing else to put olive oil on, I overate the bread that was everywhere. I ate my annual quota in bread in the month we were in Italy. I can report that I’ve almost lost all of the bread pounds I gained while I was there!
Pasta has been a staple of my diet all my life but the pasta I ate there was often handmade, served to al dente perfection and had ingredients that I hadn’t tasted before. For example, I ate spaghetti tossed in olive oil and cooked fennel, essence of sea urchins (ricci di mare), and clams. I was a little nervous about the sea urchins, I have to say. But the flavor was fabulous – it was truly just a hint of the urchins and it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I wonder where I can get sea urchins in the midwest???!!! Never mind! There’s a reason the Mediterraneans live so long!
I’m not a huge sweets fan in any country I visit, so I’ll leave the talk of the gelato, cassata and cannolis to someone else.
The first thing we encountered as we drove away from the airport in Palermo, was the autostrada, the highway. Perhaps because of some of the negativity in my readings, I may have been expecting cowpaths, narrow unpaved streets, better suited to catering to mules than to cars. Certainly something less primitive than I found! What I found were thoroughfares that would make some parts of America envious. Street signs, however, can be misleading or non-existent but we were being guided by our GPS on our phone and, with one exception, it never failed us. The one exception was finding ourselves caught in some construction late on a Sunday afternoon and being brought to a gravel road and a farmhouse off the beaten path on the way to Agrigento. My husband deftly backed out of the road and got us re-routed onto the correct alternate route to our hotel.
In a country full of aggressive drivers, Sicilians are some of Italy’s most aggressive, with a habit of overtaking on blind corners, I found, especially in Taormina with its narrow streets. One gentleman on a motorbike came so close to me after turning a corner that he grazed my skirt! The next day we were with our guide, Manuele, trekking on the foothills of Mt Etna, and I had an opportunity to ask him why I didn’t see bodies strewn all over the roadways. He laughed, and said, “Nancy, you’re thinking too much. When you’re walking in town, just go ahead and do what you want to do and assume that everyone in your way will accommodate you!” After that, I paid particular attention to the choreography between drivers and pedestrians. I noted that Manuele was correct – everyone seemed to recognize their place in the dance and somehow each accommodated the other. At least most of the time!
Ours was a short but unforgettable stay in Sicily. I want to go back and see more: Trapani, Siracusa, spend more time in Catania and, of course, Santo Stefano di Camastra. I’d love to have my son, daughter-in-law and grandkids with us. I need to do more background work on my ancestry before going back. I learned from my contact there that I will need to come with more hard facts about marriage and birth dates in the Serio family in order to access records in the local churches and town hall. It’s an effort I intend to make before I return.
Until next time….