Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sicily Stunning and Shimmering

"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." Goethe
Greek amphitheatre at Taromina
Here it is in a beautiful painting by early 20th-century Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka, now in the National Gallery in Budapest. Kosztka captured the beauty, color and spirit of the place.

A panoramic view of glimmering Taormina,Mt. Etna in background. In Greek mythology Zeus trapped the monster Typhon under Etna. In modern realities, the volcanic soil  supports extensive agriculture, with vineyards, orchards, lemon and fruit groves spread across the lower slopes. Bella! Lots of controls have been established to control the flow of any future eruptions. 
And the crystal blue Mediterranean all around, this photo taken at 2700-year-old Siricusa as we crossed the bridge to its ancient island town of Ortygia with its precious Greek heritage.   
"It's a beautiful mix of cultures," our guide Flavia Condorelli said as our Gate I tour group traveled from Palermo to Erice and around the island.  "I want people to know it and love it as I do."  A guide with a mission.
Only photo I've ever seen of 
Messina in ruins from the 1908 
Mt.Etna eruption, by Wilhelm
Von Gloedon (wikipedia).

I knew Sicily as the birthplace of my dad's mother, Francesca, who was born in Messina and remembered the 1908 Mt. Etna eruption. Over 60,000 people died. It was, I now understand, a miracle she survived, but she never forgot it. That's about all I knew.  I think other grandparents and family members were born elsewhere in Italy and some ended up in Sicily before emigrating to America. My memories are sketchy.

In some ways I thought of Sicily as prosaic, maybe even inferior, compared to mainland Italy and such glorious tourism magnets as Rome, Florence,Venice, Portofino and Cinque Terra. Not as artistic or sophisticated, either.

How wrong I was.

Now of course I deeply regret not asking my grandmother all the questions I had as our Gate 1 tour group drove from exciting Palermo across the hilly island, intensively cultivated wherever possible, surrounded by the vivid blue Mediterranean, and with the ever-present Mt. Etna on the eastern horizon. Excellent weather added to the glow, with the exception of a few sprinkles in Taormina. We all bought unbrellas that we didn't need that day, by the way, the seller right there as we stepped off the bus. Ah well, we just helped the Sicilian economy, I thought.

With super guide Flavia in Erice.
Best lunch ever, me and my sis
celebrating Palermo 
Our bus driver, Gianni, expertly handled the twists and turns of the mountain roads ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 feet, knew them like the back of his hand, while Flavia shared her knowledge and insight. Our daily trips began with a chorus of "Buon giorno, Johnny!" Sumptuous views greeted us at every turn. Breathtaking!

Palermo panorama,by Gabrios 1984, just as we saw it, and the powerful Palermo Cathedral, a symbol of the city since Norman times. It's an interesting mixture of centuries of overlapping architectural styles. In each era, something was removed, added, or changed.  That's Sicily!

Monreale Cathedral (right)
and street scene

Our tour began in Palermo, where we had our first glimpse of the glories of Sicily.  It's a great city in a beautiful natural environment.  It is Sicily's cultural, economic and tourism capital. Fascinating architecture dominates, reflecting the different cultures that have occupied Sicily over the centuries.  We traveled to the nearby hilltop town of Monreale to tour a magnificent Norman Cathedral, its exterior grand, its interior glistening with 12th-century Byzantine mosaics.  Imagine! We walked the streets and plazas of old town, stopping to explore the Palermo Cathedral, which illuminates the unique multicultural history of Sicily. "The cathedral is like a living organism, its majestic body showing the signs of continuity and change, allowing visitors to take a brief but extraordinary journey through a thousand years of history," as a guidebook put it. This is Sicily's fascinating layered history.
Main plaza,Old Palermo
The Il Mirto e la Rosa, where 
we  had a memorable dinner.  
Our Palermo walk took us to the Palazzo dei Normanni and the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its striking combination of Norman and Islamic influences; the Porta Nuova, a gateway built in 1583,
and like every other Sicilian monument a living organism of change overtime; and the Plazza Pretoria, dominated by an intricately carved central fountain, a combination of Norman and Baroque styles predominating. Palermo is also noted for its cuisine, and Andy and I enjoyed some of our best meals in its great indoor and outdoor cafes and restaurants, surrounded by centuries of history.

Greek theatre, Siracusa, with tour guide. 
Although Palermo was never a Greek colony, one thing emphasized on this Gate 1 tour was Sicily's Greek heritage, its roots dating back to 430 BC. After our Palermo tour, we became immersed in this ancient Greek past. The Greeks brought philosophy and ethics, art and architecture, intellectualism and education to Sicily, and it flourished. Our local tour guides brought Greek Sicily alive!

To this day, we learned, there is a closer affinity with Greece than with Italy among many Sicilians, a lingering appreciation and connection that surprised me. I never thought of myself as having any Greek DNA, but now I wonder!
Segesta Temple, 5th century
Those who followed the Greeks, after the Roman destruction of Carthage around 750 BC--the Romans, the Vandals (a Germanic tribe), the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish--left mixed legacies. Great architecture, temples and villas, creative cuisine, and often great destruction.

The Romans especially exploited the island without restraint, destroying or building over everything Greek. "The Romans were cruel and oppressive rulers," Patricia, our local guide in Siracusa said, as she walked us through the fantastic ruins of the huge Greek amphitheatre and ancient caves. Other local guides said the same thing, Giovanni at the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, the largest and best preserved temple ruins outside of mainland Greece, and Elizabeth in Taormina at another enormous Greek theater.  These are the towns and sites that preserve and honor the bygone era of Greek Sicily, the birthplace of Archimedes, of great artists and thinkers, perhaps of the Sicilian language itself.

Andy keeping up with our
energetic tour group! 
Lovely Erice .Actors filming a movie!  
On the fourth day of our tour, we travelled the winding roads to mountaintop Erice, a wonderfully preserved medieval town with incredible views and a great historical presence.  I have always loved these medieval towns. We walked along the cobblestone streets, lined as well with examples of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. The unique multicultural mix and layered history of Sicily again! Incredible. Enduring.

To our great delight, we also happened upon the filming of a movie at the crossroads to the towns of Sciacca and Licata. Filmmakers were setting up the scene while actors in the simple dress of Medieval farmers stood around talking. The nearby ceramic shops and bakeries beckoned, however, and we moved on to enjoy more food for the soul, beautiful ceramics, and those delicious Sicilian cookies I remember as a child. Memories of family gatherings flooded back. 

On the way to Erice, we stopped at the 5th-century Temple of Segesta, an awesome presence on the Sicilian landscape. We also visited the Stagnone Lagoon, a natural reserve of low sea water with Saline-salt evaporation ponds.  It was a picturesque scene of white mounds of salt contrasted by working windmills and fishing boats in the sea. Then on to Marsala for wine tasting at one of the province's historic wineries. It was a full and exciting day.
Marsala winery and Stagnone Lagoon, the Salt mines 
Next up, Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples!  We stopped on the way for a tour of the once-luxurious Roman Villa del Casale, where decorative mosaics have been uncovered under centuries of mudslides and debris and are now being preserved. The archeological workmanship, ongoing, is remarkable, along with the wonders of the craft and the scenes of daily life created in an array of  inticate patterns. One large mosaic features women exercising in what looks like modern-day bikinis. Amazing!

Breathtakingly stunning
Taormina, with its winding

streets, plazas and stairways.
With so much creativity filling our heads, we still had two places to visit on our itinerary,Taormina and Siricusa. Both exceeded my expectations. Both encompassed the glorious Greek heritage of Sicily.

After walking, or trying to walk, the black lava-crusted slopes of Mt. Etna, around the Crateri Silvestri, a fascinating close-up view of this rumbling volcano, we headed for Taormina. There we stayed for three glorious nights at a lovely villa, privately owned, in Giardini Naxos, on the Bay of Naxos. Ancient places, sacred spaces. From our balcony we had fantastic views of modern residences built on the hillsides; a Florida-like landscape beautifully planted and graced with statuary; the sea and Mt. Etna clear and bold, not at all menacing.We definitely had "a room with a view." In fact, all our Gate 1 hotels were terrific, well located, clean and comfortable.

Andy and I sat on the balcony of Sant'Alphio Garden in Giardini Naxos in awe. "Can't believe we're here," we'd say. Together, in Sicily, on a magical heritage tour. We felt our brother Loren's spirit, wished he could have been with us in person. Our parents and grandparents, too.
Taromina central plaza around fountain of Diana. .
Taormina and Naxos are ancient towns, inhabited by the indigenous Siculi even before the Greeks arrived. The natural beauty and built environment of the area stunned us as we took in panoramic views, sat on the balcony at sunrise and sunset, saw a beautiful full moon rise over Mt. Etna that mesmerized us, strolled from one historic site to another around the exquisite region. We soaked in the glory and felt the warm glow of a lovely heritage and, I can now admit, an undervalued heritage. This special journey finally put it right. We couldn't imagine how hard it must have been for our ancestors to leave Sicily behind and go to America, a strange land, in search of new opportunities. We couldn't imagine the courage it took and the mixture of sadness, fear and hope. We couldn't imagine the difficulties of adjusting to a new life, not to mention the ingratitude and ignorance of their totally Americanized grandchildren.  And sadly, we didn't ask the important questions of roots and identity when our grandparents, and also our parents, were alive.

At a cafe on Taormina's main square, with new friends. 

Such thoughts carried over to our group's last stop at Siricusa, 
another World Heritage Site.  Our tour guide Patricia led us around the incredible Neapolis Archaeological Park and the "Ear of Dionysus," an awesome limestone cave with outstanding acoustics in a lovely park, to the Greek-Roman amphitheatre, and then to the center of the gorgeous old town of Ortygia.
Down this street to the sea, Siricusa
with Christine and Tom to a neat cafe.

From the hills to the sea, the glory of Greece and Sicily's Grecian past filled our senses. "The Greeks had a good eye for beauty," one guidebook writes, "and were experts at choosing the most strategic sites for their majestic buildings. Their temples, for example, were deliberately decorated with stuccos containing white marble powder, so that they would shine brightly in the rays of the sun." Siricusa outdid them all! 

At Greek-Roman amphitheatre, 
Siracusa. My PCV friends Ilse 
and Jud will recognize this pose!

Of course I sing its praises, the indelible images still fresh, vivid, moving, shining as brightly as those ancient Greek buildings on the mountain tops and the sea.  But, Sicily is not without hardship, conflict, and economic setbacks. It's on the rise again, a modern 21st-century Sicily emerging, but unemployment remains high, poverty persists, and the island's priorities, including economic development and tourism, are not necessarily priorities for the national government up North. This is a constant struggle.

The fact that 1.5 million people emigrated from the Island at the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother and family members among them, speaks to Sicily's struggles, Flavia said.  She talked a lot about this. Another wave left for Australia after World War II; it included my grandmother's youngest sister Paulina and her large extended family. We had the honor of meeting this branch of our family in Sydney many years ago, and experienced firsthand the generosity and loving spirit of our Sicilian heritage. The memories of that visit never diminish.

Sicily today also struggles with stereotypes, many associated with the Mafia, an ongoing battle on the part of Sicilians to wrest their beloved island from the gangsters' grip.  It helps when new industries come to the island, when new jobs are created, when politicians and judges join forces, when roads are built and expanded, when infrastructure is strengthened, when ancient towns are spruced up and ready to welcome tourists and newcomers.

Through it all, the spirit, the energy, the generosity of the Sicilian people shine through.  Strong regional pride continues. "We are proud Sicilians," a restauranteur in Naxos told us with a great laugh. He called Andy and me the "Misses Curros" after he learned our name. "Koo-row" is how he pronounced it. "Hey Misses Curros, don't leave yet, I have something for you," he boomed after we paid our check.  He came back with two shots of limoncello, a lovely lemon liquor that we downed with enthusiasm and many grazies. The soul of Sicily, stunning, shimmering, and everlasting.

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