Sicily - September 2006

Italy's flag
Europe » Italy » Sicily
October 8th 2006
Published: October 31st 2006
Edit Blog Post


Orientation: Sicily is the island that the boot of Italy is "kicking." You can see the tip of the boot on the far right. The town of Messina is where Buzz & Mary Jean took the ferry/train to the mainland to visit Rome.
January 2008. Hello again all - As you can see from the date below, this was trip was taken a while ago. Please disregard this if you already received it, however I have added more photos. In my travel blog site it indicated that this travel blog was never "published," which I was sure it had been. However, just in case, I'm "publishing" again. Please forgive the inconvenience if you have already received this journal.

Sicily, Italy

October 2006

Note: Click on photos to enlarge or on "more" to enlarge and read the rest of the text.

Okay, okay, so I’m tackling the easy one first, you are right. The South Africa-Botswana-Namibia-Zambia journal is in the works. As you might appreciate, a three- month road trip around southern Africa needs more thought, then condensing and finally editing than two weeks in Sicily. So while I’m mulling over our African experiences, let me tell you about a delightful little trip we took with my sister, Mary Jean, and husband, Buzz, a few weeks ago.

We met in Palermo since Mary Jean and Buzz live in Gig Harbor, Washington and we are back in Tucson, Arizona.

We had read quite a bit about the history of the island, but since it so extensive it was hard to get a handle on it. So, for you, a short version follows.


Sicily’s history goes back a long, long way, and rock etchings attest to human settlements as far back as 12,000 BC. But the first real evidence of an organized settlement is of people from the Middle East who settled on the island’s eastern side some time between 4000 and 3000 BC. From the middle of the second millennium BC forward waves of new settlers started arriving: the Sicanians who originated either in Spain or North Africa, the Elymians from Greece, and the Siculians (or Sikels) from the Calabrian peninsula along the Ionian Coast. The colonization of the west of the island by Carthaginians from North Africa around 850 BC and the Greeks later in the 8th and 6th centuries compounded this cultural divide. Add to the mix the Romans (227 BC), then the Byzantines in 535 AD, back to Arab rule in 965 AD, and a Norman (French) conquest in 1072. In 1442 Sicily was united with Naples on the mainland of today’s Italy and they became the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies for 400 years. Then the Spanish held power in the 1700s, and when the Spanish Inquisition commenced, it rained terror on Sicily (and lots of other places). In 1806-15 the British occupied Sicily and began the production of sherry in Marsala. . . . well, you get the idea.

The Mafia

The word ‘Mafia’ was in common use for 110 years before it was officially acknowledged as referring to an actual organization. It was formally recorded by the Palermo government in 1865, but the term was not included in the Italian penal code until 1982.

Up to WWII the Mafia operated almost exclusively in the countryside. Aristocratic absentee landlords employed managers, known as 'gabellotti' (bailiffs) to oversee their estates. The gabellotti then employed local intermediaries (men later referred to as 'mafiaso') to collect extortionate rents from the peasant laborers. By the 1850s, these ‘strong men’ and their extended families were not only on the payroll of the gabellotti, but also took care of problems from anyone who paid well. Sicilians kept mum about their activities due to fear, complicity and suspicion.

Benito Mussolini almost wiped out the Mafia in the 1920s, but in the 1930s Mussolini tried to colonize Libya and eventually dragged Sicily (and all of Italy) into WWII. The Mafia, which had been driven underground, took the opportunity of the war to exact revenge on Mussolini by collaborating with the Allied forces, assisting in the capture of the island in 1943. The fact that Sicily was taken from the Germans in only 39 days was testament to the Mafia’s influence in the countryside. The Mafia’s authority on the island was firmly re-established with the appointment of Mafia Don Calogero Vizzini as the island’s administrator.

Today the ‘invisible Mafia’ doesn’t need to resort to violence or threats; its one-time collaborators and their families have now melted into the social fabric as respectable and influential citizens. Whether it is recovering stolen property or getting a permit, the Mafia still has a hand in it. It is estimated that 80%!o(MISSING)f Palermo’s shopkeepers pay some kind of 'pizzo' (protection money).


We started in PALERMO, (north, Tyrrhenian, coast) which is a pretty typical big city, albeit with great old churches and palazzos (palaces) tucked into cobble stoned side streets lined with sidewalk cafes. Our walking tour guide (Frommers) was kind enough to indicate where good ‘rest stops’ were - cafes that had good vantage points for the wonderful pastime of people watching. See Cappella Palatina photo.

The funniest experience in Palermo was when we ventured into the City Hall (it was next to a fountain that was on our tour) to find a toilet - thank goodness that word is the same in most languages. Well, our pronunciation must have been atrocious because instead of finding a toilet, we were given a private tour of City Hall! We were taken into closed galleries and meeting rooms, shown a sword of Napoleon Bonaparte, murals and other art. The young man accompanying us spoke in rapid Italian all the time. Bernie’s Spanish was of great use the majority of the time in Sicily, but in this case we understood little. However, language was not needed to understand how kind he was being to us.

From Palermo we drove south to Agrigento (on the west, Mediterranean, coast). While the town isn't appealing, it is the base for the Valley of Temples, which is one of Sicily’s premier attractions and a Unesco World Heritage-listed complex of temples (480 -

Distant view of our accommodations in Pizza Armarina
406 BC), and old city walls that remain from the ancient Greek city of Akragas. See Valley of the Temples photo. We stayed at a beach town outside of Argrigento that had bikes we used to ride through the little village and to the seaside cafes.

PIAZZA ARMERINA/CALTAGIRONE (inland, central). These two towns are typically provincial and have attractive historical centers and bustling atmospheres. The real highlight is just outside Piazza Armerina at Casale, the site of a sumptuous Roman villa with the “largest and best-preserved collection of mosaic artwork in the world.” I also read somewhere that it is the most important Roman ruin in Europe. See Roman Villa Mosaic photo.

In Piazza (as the locals refer to it) we stayed at an agriturismo, which is basically a farm or vineyard stay. They are great because you are out in the countryside and most of these agriturismos are in ancient buildings. You can walk through the vineyards, have meals there (which include all the wine you can drink), view the wine making process and enjoy the quiet. See Agriturismo photo.

CALTAGIRONE is the ceramic center of Sicily, so naturally we had to visit. It was the only day it rained enough to inconvenience us. See Caltagirone Stairs photos.

Between Piazza and Syracuse is the charming little town of NOTO. We visited on a Sunday so all the locals were gathered in groups talking, walking arm-in- arm, having sweets and coffee. Mary Jean made an interesting observation - we saw few women out and about. There were knots of men everywhere, but few women, and the ones we did see were middle-aged and up. Later in Syracuse we noticed that the women came out in the evenings - there were gaggles of teenage girls, young couples strolling, as well as groups of women sitting in the cafes.

SYRACUSE (on east, Ionian, coast). “Sultry and civilized Syracuse (Siracusa) was considered by Cicero to be the most beautiful city in the ancient world.” Tidy and compact, it is a manageable city to visit. We stayed right in the old center, so had a ball walking all the streets and alleys. Went to a pupi (puppet) show and finally found ‘Sicilian pizza.’

Which brings me to the RULES OF PIZZA. Unbeknownst to us, pizza is not available even in a ‘pizzeria’ in the afternoons; they do not fire up their pizza ovens until the evening. And since we were eating our main meal midday, we actually didn’t eat that much pizza. The pizza we most often got was the thin-crust kind - not the deep dish as we think of as Sicilian in the U.S. You can, however, get the Sicilian style from kiosks that sell it by the slice.

The Parco Archeologico dell Neapolis is Syracuse’s most visited site, which is not surprising given its mighty, rough-hewn quarries, spectacular Greek theatre and impressive ruins. The Greek Theatre could seat 16,000 and saw the work of Sophocles, Euripides and the tragedies of Aeschylus. When the Romans took Syracuse in the 3rd century AD they made alterations to the theater, mostly so that they could stage gladiatorial combats and mock naval battles in the flooded arena.

The Romans built an amphitheater, the third largest in Italy, for chariot races, but the Spaniards had little interest in archaeology and destroyed the site in the 16th century, using it as a quarry to build the city walls of Ortygia, the area of Syracuse where we stayed. See Syracuse/Greek Theatre and Roman Amphitheater photos.

MT. ETNA (inland). Sicily’s most prominent landmark is Europe’s largest live volcano and one of the world’s most active. At 3323 meters (10,800 feet) Etna literally towers over the Ionian Coast; its smoking peak is visible from almost everywhere on the east side of the island.

Recorded history is littered with eruptions, including major ones in 475 BC, AD 1169, 1329 and 1381. The most devastating eruption occurred in 1669 and lasted 122 days. A massive river of lava poured down Etna’s southern slope, destroying 16 towns and engulfing a good part of the city of Catania.

In more modern times there have also been many eruptions: 1971, 1983, 1979, 1987, 1992. In 2001-02 Mt. Etna’s most spectacular explosions in 40 years caused immense damage to the infrastructure on the southern side of the mountain. We were lucky to have a perfectly clear day for our Etna excursion, and yes, that is smoke coming out of the top, not clouds. See Mt. Etna photos.

We stayed at another agriturismo near Mt. Etna in the little village of Santa Venerina, and it was one of our favorite accommodations. See Agriturismo San Michele photo.

TAORMINA (on east, Ionian, coast) “is spectacularly located on a terrace of Monte Tauro, dominating the sea with views west to Mt. Etna - it is difficult to exaggerate the charm of Taormina.” And spectacular it was. It was the most picturesque town we’d visited. They have, you guessed it, a Greek theater, but this one was the best because of its location. See Taormina photos.

Our last city together was MESSINA (Ionian Coast), which is the jumping off point for folks, like Mary Jean and Buzz, taking a ferry/train to the mainland. MJ and Buzz were off to Rome for four days before heading home. Bernardo and I drove the car back to Palermo (we flew home from there) via the northern coast road - more churches, a castle and spectacular ocean scenery.



POVERTY. Sicily was much poorer than any of us expected. Yes, we’d read that it was the poorest part of Italy, but this is EUROPE for goodness sake, so we were not expecting developing world conditions. We didn’t see that many poor people, but the buildings and infrastructure seemed to be in major disrepair - all of Sicily seemed to be under scaffolding and we wondered if Sicily would ever
Agriturismo San Michele ViewAgriturismo San Michele ViewAgriturismo San Michele View

Mt. Etna - view from Argiturismo San Michele in the village of St. Venerina
be ‘done’ because of the scope of repairs needed.

LANGUAGE. So few people spoke English, which is the language of travel, so that was a surprise. We didn’t expect the man on the street to speak English, but even hotel staff and in tourist restaurants the inability to communicate was a problem. We noticed Asians, Dutch and others trying to communicate in English and getting the same blank looks we’d get. Bernie’s Spanish helped tons, but there were just times we had to get by on instinct and hand gestures (for directions).

FOOD. The food was only okay, maybe because we are used to New York style Italian food, and also because we couldn’t maneuver through a menu as well as we would have liked. In fact our dictionaries were useless in many places because the menus were in Sicilian - a dialect some say can be considered a separate language from Italian. Where we were able to communicate with the waiters we got good food, but when we did not, it was only mediocre - our fault no doubt.

The best part of the trip for me was being with my sister and Buzz. Mary Jean and I have the same sense of humor, so half the time we were laughing so hard we could hardly walk. Bernie and Buzz would look at each other with that “it must be a sister thing” look on their faces, but actually they were quite entertained by us as well. Bernie often says that no one enjoys my jokes and antics more than me, well okay, but Mary Jean comes close and can be just as silly. Good times, good times.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21



MJ in the Noto alley. We didn't spend the night in Noto, but spent a lovely afternoon exploring its many narrow, picturesque streets

Bernie and I got to explore the north coast as we drove the car back to Palermo while MJ & Buzz headed to Rome (from Messina)

In addition to a great beach town, Cefalu is an active fishing village
Pizza Armarina Agriturismo Pizza Armarina Agriturismo
Pizza Armarina Agriturismo

This is a view from our accommodations - not too shabby huh?

Tot: 0.145s; Tpl: 0.015s; cc: 11; qc: 28; dbt: 0.0461s; 1; m:domysql w:travelblog (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.3mb