By Bobbi Speck, Toronto
When I travel I like to summon the mood I remember from childhood summer mornings: I step out the door with few expectations, and the adventure begins. So on September 10, when I locked the door behind me and set my foot on the pavement, I thought I was ready. But, many weeks later, I can honestly tell you that Sicily is still working on me!
Our initial night and day in a suburb of Rome provided a perfect transition with hints of the surprises ahead. The introductory gathering of my fellow travelers was at a family–run, neighborhood trattoria, down the block from Roman ruins, a local market, and a tango festival under lights in a park. The food and ambiance set a high bar for future meals. We spent the night in the peacefully austere, but comfortably equipped convent-guest house up the block, and awoke refreshed and ready for a little sightseeing before our short flight to Palermo. Our visit to the two ancient churches at Sant’Agnese fuori le mura provided a most curious montage. While an elegantly stylish Roman wedding was unfolding in one church, just beyond the adjacent small grape arbor and tomato patch the local men played Bocce with a vengeance on screened and roofed courts, in the shadow of the other church, where Mass was being celebrated by tourists and the neighborhood faithful.
A few hours after that urban adventure we were viewing Sicily’s forbidding, rocky terrain from the windows of our jet. We knew from our readings and from dinner discourse that Sicily was very different from the rest of Italy. Indeed, even the dialects are unique, and having our amiable discussion leader, Nella Cotrupi, also as our constant companion and guide was most fortunate: fluent in the dialects, Nella guided us through streets and menus alike regaling us with information and culinary recommendations throughout the trip.
Despite the preparation, I was nevertheless amazed from the first day by what I saw. Sicily had been the object of constant invasions from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans and later through secession to the kingdoms of Savoy, Austria, the Bourbons through the Napoleonic Wars, and ultimately returned by Garibaldi to Savoy, creating a mix of cultures of enormous, layered complexity and rich in texture. All of this was spelled out in the most intelligent discourse by Laura, our guide from an organization dedicated to preserving historical and cultural landmarks in Palermo. Laura was elegant, articulate and wry, and her tours were as rich and complex as the sites we visited.
Palermo immediately brings to mind the magnificent gold and colored glass mosaics which adorn the walls from floor to ceiling in the Palace Chapel and cathedral of Monreale, built by the enlightened Normans to serve both the Eastern and Western Christian sects which evenly divided the kingdom. Saints from both sects are honored, and scriptural quotations appear in Greek and Latin.
It is a city of wide boulevards and narrow, twisting side streets; of magnificent architecture, monumental public buildings, and homes that range in size from mansions to buildings that would seem to fit in one room of a mansion. On our walks around the city we visited open markets that ranged for blocks, displaying fresh produce like four-foot long zucchini (“We Sicilians are very proud to show you our big zucchinis!” quipped Laura with a wink), seafood, meats, olives, household supplies, clothing, lamps, jewelry – everything imaginable.
In one narrow street a block from a main thoroughfare, a black Shetland pony was tethered; in another a duck sporting a red ribbon around its neck paddled in a tin bucket filled with water, while Vespas zigzagged around pedestrians and outdoor cafes down the streets without sidewalks. And the cars were covered with fine sand blown in from the Sahara the previous day.
New architecture mirrored the old, modern sculptural lighting was suspended over streets shaded by day by ancient trees, and children played in the exposed roots of an ancient Banyan tree.
Our discussions took place in various locations, perhaps the most interesting being the windowless and roofless church reclaimed from WWII bombings. Trees grow inside the skeletal remains, which is used for open-air concerts. After our discussion, one of our group climbed up on the stage to join a small band which was preparing a rehearsal, and we were treated to an impromptu dance.
Palermo is the home of the family of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampadusa, the author of The Leopard, the first of our readings. The Lampadusa Society conducted a tour of landmarks from the novel, accompanied by an actor who did readings at teach of the sites, illuminating our understanding of the story of aristocratic society before the arrival of Garibaldi. This tour was the grand finale to our stay in Palermo.
By this time the group had coalesced nicely. We were a dozen plus our two leaders, couples and singles, from Canada, the U.S. and Germany, for the most part strangers to each other. The pacing of the two-week itinerary was ideal. We had extended stays in two major cities, a short stay in another, trips by private coach traversing the coast and interior between the cities, and excursions to important sites from the cities and along the way. There was a nice balance between guided tours and time to explore on our own or to rest. Two of the three meals a day were as a group. And there were the ever-important discussions of the literature, which threaded the trip with a continuous focus, and which infused our understanding of the country and its culture.
And perhaps the most important feature of the trip was that while it was carefully organized, there was also flexibility, and the occasional changes in the itinerary provided a spontaneity that one usually associates with personal rather than organized travel. Perhaps that is why I have so many memories (and photographs) of scenes that aroused my curiosity, and it is some of these I have selected here, rather than those of famous sites and ancient ruins, which are readily available in travel books.
From Palermo we traveled to Erice, a medieval walled city high above the coast, a Norman stronghold built on an ancient site, relatively unchanged, hilly, with ancient buildings crammed along narrow stone streets without sidewalks. We traveled there by private coach, driven by Mario, a charming Sicilian who was to be our driver, raconteur (and personal restaurant guide!) for the remainder of the trip.
We arrived by way of Segesta were we visited spectacular 5th century Greek ruins, and then along the beautiful coast (stopping for lunch in Trapani), with the towering walls of Erice often in sight. The climb on the steep highway took us from one climate to another, and differing times in history. Our hotelier was the descendant of the ancient family whose 400-year old home had been converted into a quirky and friendly hotel. A glass of wine with this droll host in his charming courtyard put the finishing touches on a fabulous meal personally prepared by him. Erice was a marvelous place for strolling, the winding hilly streets leading us by private and public buildings and spaces, exciting our curiosity as we wandered on our own and in small groups.
Then we were off again with Mario, crossing the interior, where we saw first hand the parched and varying landscape so powerfully described in The Leopard and the harsh terrain of the short stories we were discussing by Giovanni Verga and Leonardo Sciascia. Mario regaled us with information both historical and current along the way. We spent a day in Agrigento where we visited the spectacular Valley of the Temples and wandered among the ruins dating from the 5th century BCE.
And then, with one or two stops along the way, we reached the sea and our lovely hotel over the port of Siracusa. This coastal city differs considerably from Palermo architecturally as well as in character and temperament, and we had ample time to explore the narrow winding streets and little shops filled with artisans and fish markets, and spilling into the vibrant public squares and the enormous churches and palaces. We also took day trips to Mt. Etna, the picturesque Taormina perched high above the beach, an evening in the Baroque city of Noto, a Roman villa which is still being excavated, and a Greek amphitheater, where we stood in the enormous, ominous cave created by the slaves who quarried the stones for this monumental structure.
Dining on Sicilian specialties, discussing the literature, touring in groups or singly, our little group cohered into a band of jolly adventurers. It was therefore perfect planning to end our journey where we began, in the charming and lively neighbourhood trattoria in the Roman suburb, where the proprietors greeted us as old friends. We reminisced together, and then said our reluctant farewells, before settling down in the peaceful convent to prepare for the trip home.
Since then I have been in touch with new friends from the trip, and the travellers from Toronto have come together for a viewing our photos, and of the movie of The Leopard. Over wine and antipasto we reminisced over happy memories of an unforgettable trip.
Bobbi Speck, Toronto