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Sicily: Land of Contrasts

Why Sicily?

An island of intensity and contrasts, we've visited several times. On our current adventure, we're living in a cave, an experience I'll describe later.


Sicily has always beckoned foreigners. D.H. Lawrence lived here for some years and Lawrence Durrell wrote of it. Yet 'la dolce vita' doesn't apply to this mass of stone kicked by the boot tip of Italy. Salt and sulphur mines, quarries, deforestation, active volcanoes, historic strife, and a history of absentee landlords have left their harsh mark.


Sicily remains compelling at the crossroads of Euro-North African-Mid Eastern cultures: a land filled with myth and remnants of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, Swabians, and French who lived here. With its own dialects, history, and allegiances, it's a land set apart from the rest of Italy, both physically and culturally. It offers much to see but seems a hard place to get to know. Something surprising always awaits as you travel in Sicily.

Trinacria, photo above, Symbol of Sicily (read more about it)

Mount Etna Lives

Mt. Etna is very much a live volcano Topped with eternal snow, Etna still fumes with earth's inner fire. Years ago, we could hire a jeep and guide to take us up there. I saw red veins flowing through the hot earth underfoot. You could feel the warm, shifting, ground under your feet and smell the acrid sulfur from the mythical forges of Hephaestus.


Etna dominates Sicily's eastern landscape, is Europe’s largest volcano and one of the world’s most active. Dramatic jets of lava were recorded spewing vertically into the air as recently as 2013. Yet, it remains an active visitor destination.

The Renaissance in Sicily

Sicily, too, had its Renaissance master artists. Antonello da Messina is a famous local boy who made his mark in art history. Some of his works, like the Madonna of the Salts (shown) seem to me strikingly modern in their play of expressions, modelled plasticity, emphatically simplified masses, dramatically high contrast, and super-defined 'realism'.








Anonymous Art and Outsider Art

Much of the art I saw across my travels has led me to muse about how many truly wonderful artists remain anonymous. Which contemporary artist would forsake 15 minutes of personal fame for the timeless endurance of an anonymous artwork? Made for its own sake, or perhaps aligned to a higher or spiritual purpose, so many wonderful art creations have been made by anonymous hands.

Wandering the cloister at Monreale, for instance, I marvelled at the many original figures carved atop its sinuous columns. The Arabic and oriental influence of the architecture gives a unifying theme to the Duomo, but the carvings themselves are delightful excursions into individual artistic imagination and skill.

This holds true of much Outsider Art, as well. Made by persons, typically unknown, uncelebrated, and far outside the mainstreams of art education, culture, and markets, such art may offer a uniqueness not found in schools of accepted art Consider, for example, the thousands of roughly carved heads in nearby caves and rocks by Filippo Bentivegna, a poor, brain-injured Sicilian living in Sciacca (photo credit: comune.sciacca.ag.it). He lived a solitary life but was sovereign to a kingdom of stone creations, abandoned when he died in 1967. Visiting his home, now repurposed as a museum showing some of his more than 2,000 carvings, was memorable . What drives a person to make art? Sometimes it seems like an internal need, keen as hunger.

Archaeology and Art: The Eternal Present

Art, architecture, and archaeology tend to blend here. As does present and past. Scattered through this land (once called Magna Graecia) are glorious Greek temples and amphitheatres, Phoenician artifacts, Roman architecture and mosaics of Moorish design.

Valley of the Temples and Kolymbethra Garden, Agrigento

We lived for a time in Agrigento. Below it is the Valley of the Temples, probably my personal favourite site in Sicily. This flat area once stood atop the ancient Greek city of Akragas, hailed as the most beautiful city in the ancient Mediterranean. Stone remnants of the old city wall and gates remain. In this sacred valley are some of the finest and best-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world. As you walk on here, you can feel your feet stepping alongside ancient footsteps. The spaciousness of the entire site can easily take a day or more to explore.

It's quite an experience to walk in this site, dedicated to ancient gods, with its many temples and ancient enclosed garden. You take your time, enjoying the placement of the site itself, less aware of the modern world nearby, imagining and recreating some of the life that took place here and calls out silently from these stones. Going down from the temples to Kolymbethra Garden (photo taken in winter, 2016), you discover an ancient paradise of citrus and olive trees..

Thanks to a system of canals, the ancient Greeks transformed an arid land into lush orchards. I recall the delicious aroma and taste of different kinds of oranges, mandarins, and the very Sicilian chinotto. I ate this fruit (including varieties no longer cultivated) as I wandered down from the temples above, pulling them directly from trees (allowed!)) I wonder how many tunic-garbed ancients had done the same.


The outstanding attraction remains the Temples. Here is where I've seen, up close and personal, the best standing examples of simply majestic Doric architecture. Monumental in scope (the columns of the Temple of Zeus were reported large enough to hold a person within one of their grooves!).

Concordia Temple (left,, photo credi).

JS at Temple of Juno, Valle dei Templi, 2016


Recumbent ruins of telamone (gigantic figures used as support columns,) lie now where they might once have stood to support the architecture. The best examples of these giants are in the nearby archaeology museum, but I think the ones seen here, eroded and lying on the earth, give a clearer poignancy to the passing ages.

Telemon,photographed on site Valle dei Templi (left); Icarus statue (modern) beside Temple of Concordia

Among these remarkable temples lay a contemporary sculpture of Icarus, a mythical theme I'd previously envisioned in an abstract painting (below).

Segesta and Selinunte

Other renowned sites for ancient Greek architecture are scattered throughout Sicily. Segesta features only one standing temple, but is a monumental classic. (Note the person standing midway between the central columns to get a sense of proportion.) The temple stands proudly alone in its isolated setting and is particularly impressive because of this. No museum, no commentary, no fanfare, just the starkness of the contrasting countryside make this visit all the more memorable.

At Selinunte, ancient temple stones lie scattered and jumbled, but have inspired many writers, like Goethe, Sartre, and other famous visitors. Given other classical Greek sites in Sicily, I can't claim a similarly profound experience with this jumble of remnants. The stones lie in chaotic heaps that, to me, suggest interesting compositions that don't cohere. When the temples stood tall, this site, near the sea, must have been a marvelous one for ancient passing ships.


Siracusa/Syracuse and nearby Ortygia

Siracusa is a timeless city. Once the largest city in the ancient Mediterranean world (larger than Athens or Corinth), it was a center of a sophisticated urban culture, filled with philosophers, poets, and merchants. Its ancient Greek amphitheatre (horse-shoe shape, Wikipedia photo) remains functional, with plays still staged there at sunset. Aeschylus lived here and some of his plays were first performed here ... and in his presence. Nearby is an ancient Roman arena (round). The preferred use of such theatres in ancient Greece was for plays and theatrical drama, whereas in ancient Rome it was for sports and gladiator spectacle.


We stayed in nearby Ortygia, situated across a short bridge from Siracusa. It's an ancient town dear to the goddess Artemis/Diana. Now a tangled Baroque maze of a little peninsula beside the sea greets you. I loved its lively atmosphere. Paper made from papyrus once filled city factories, and now samples can be found in artisan shops.


I especially liked a small but celebrated poetic site in this city: a natural freshwater spring right beside the salty sea. Looking downward into it from the city street, you see a pool with papyrus growing and statues relating the Greek legend of Arethusa, a nymph who rose up at the site of this sacred fountain when Artemis answered her prayers for protection from the advances of the river god. (Photo shows the font of Arethusa, Ortygia, Sicusa, credit ).

The story , as Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses (translated):

"Cold sweat poured down my imprisoned limbs, and dark drops trickled from my whole body. Wherever I moved my foot, a pool gathered, and moisture dripped from my hair, and faster than I can now tell the tale I turned to liquid. And indeed the river-god saw his love in the water, and putting off the shape of a man he had assumed, he changed back to his own watery form, and mingled with mine. The Delian goddess split the earth, and plunging down into secret caverns, I was brought here...and this was the first place to receive me, into the clear air.”

Walking to the market and passing the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, now among the more modern buildings of the city, it impressed me how assimilated the past and present become in places like this: how familiar and "ordinary" it is to walk to the café as you also walk through living legends and ancient sacred sites. I remembered that Artemis and Apollo were twins, and this town was dedicated to both.


For an entirely different change of pace and scene, let's go to Palermo, capitol of Sicily.


Palermo

Palermo is a high-octane, multi-ethnic city where chic high-fashion contends with street stalls, and luxurious Baroque architecture vies with some mean streets. Some selected sights follow.

Porto Nuovo (Palermo)

To give you a wink of an idea of just how old Palermo is, this photo shows the "new" door to the city -- built in the 1500's. I think the moustached faces depicted are particularly interesting and different from those carved in similar times in western Europe. I'm sure they hold many more stories.






Palazzo Reale: Capella Palatina (Palermo)

The Palazzo Reale (12th C) with its extraordinary Cappella Palatina (chapel of the kings of Sicily under Norman rule) is unlike anything I'd seen before. It's a perfect gem of Norman and Moorish-influenced Byzantine architecture. It's ceiling is reputed to be the only one in the world of this style: "stalactites" carved in wood. The images throughout are wonderful examples of golden mosaic artistry and narrative depiction. Only a great many photos could even hint at it. Walking inside it is like being encased in marvels everywhere you look. How anyone could ever draw one's eyes away from all there is to see and pay attention to a sermon here (or in Monreale, below) is beyond me.

Teatro Maximo (Palermo)

Back to secular reality, here's an internet photo of the Teatro Massimo. It's the largest theatre in Italy and one of the largest in the world. An inscription on its facade says that art both renews and reveals a people. It was the setting for the final scenes of Godfather III. Go make something of that!


I saw it only on grey days and in the midst of heavy city traffic. Yet, as actual horse-drawn carriages waited nearby, it was easy to imagine the very large and plush interior filled with gentry listening to Cavaleria Rusticana, that almost perfectly scored, intense little opera of 19th C rural Sicilian life. I can envision the elegant Prince Lampedusa in a theatre box. He's a major character in The Leopard, a gripping historical novel by G.T. Lampedusa, that chronicles changes in Sicilian society during Italy's Risorgimiento (the movie stars Burt Lancaster as the Prince).

The Politeama (Palermo)

Nearby is the Politeama, a welcome sight for me when lost in this city. Seeing the horses on its roof helps orient me. The roof scene is symbolic of Garibaldi (one of the good guys in history), who landed with his brigade in Sicily as the first stop on their trek for Italy's Risorgimiento. It has remained quite a challenge to govern Italy as a unified country ever since.




Monreale

Just outside Palermo is Monreale, with another of the great sites in Sicily. Monreale's 12C Duomo is magnificent: impressive outside and splendid inside, with gold encrusted mosaics very gracefully depicting biblical scenes. The old testament narrative is depicted on the upper level, and the new testament on the bottom level. It's more than glitter, and tends to embrace the viewer on all sides. Similar in style to the older Capella Palatina (Palazzo Reale), the mosaics seem to me even finer.


From the sublime to the ridiculous, let me tell you a true tale of what happened to us in Monreale.

Driving and Losing Your Car in Sicily

Driving in Sicily is a dangerous sport for the un-initiated. Many roads are less than wonderful and the basic "rules of the road" turn anarchic. The main custom seems to be "whoever gets there first has the right of way", even if this means dangerously cutting in. Demarcated lines on the road mean very little when a Sicilian car wants to pass yours, and passing in dangerous situations seems to be a national sport. Yet the same drivers, out of their cars, are genuinely nice to us.


After searching all around Monreale for an almost nonexistent parking spot, we finally found one. We then entered and became engrossed in the beauty of the Duomo. After filling our senses with this and strolling around the piazza, we went back to the car. NO car! Couldn't find it anywhere. Stolen? That could happen. Then we noticed a street sign saying this was a restricted parking zone (something we hadn't noticed before). A local cabdriver told us our car must have been towed and that we'd have to pay a ransom to get it back. He motioned to the local police and told us to follow it up with them. The police were polite but dismissive: "Nope, we don't tow cars from here", they said, "it must have been stolen". Great. Our rented car, stolen. While reeling from this news, I remembered having taken a photo of the Duomo after we'd parked the car, and it showed a very different view from the present one. Aha! The obliging police recognized that particular view of the Duomo, and escorted us to a different street... and there was our car! We joked together about our common interest in the skills of the famous Inspector Montalbano.

Enna

Located in central Sicily, Enna is notable from afar, but not a highlight up close. Nothing as striking as sites mentioned above, but pleasant to walk around. Like many places visited on our European sojourn, the historic center (not the modern city) is the more interesting. Cold when we arrived, a delicious surprise awaited us as we huddled into a little coffee bar. We ate the very best cannoli on earth. I immediately had a second one to confirm this fact. The fried crust must be fresh and crisp and the ricotta filling seasoned perfectly and added just at the time of eating. Do you suppose the act of writing about them will lessen their caloric impact?

The Art of Eating

Sicily has a reputation for good, fresh cuisine, often including fish. We've enjoyed simple pasta made from fresh tomato, eggplant, garlic, herbs and wonderful olive oil (called Pasta Norma, it's a local specialty). Sicilian caponata is a wonderful vegetable antipasto (eggplants, olives, tomatoes). And the seafood is good, including urchin in season. Tripe is a regional specialty I'd rather not try. All varieties of pastry always look fantastic here, but my absolute favourite is fresh cannoli


Sicilian food has been further popularized by mafia films as well by our hero, Inspector Montalbano, a fictional Sicilian detective in novels by Andrea Camilleri, who never lets work interfere with his epicurean food tastes. The books are set around Agrigento,, but the popular TV series is set around Marina Ragusa and has filmed in several restaurants there and in Ragusa. We'll ditto his recommendations that the best food is simple, fresh, and uncomplicated by menacing conversation.

The Art of Barbering

In Villa Rosa, a nearby small town there's no earthly reason to visit, my bearded traveling mate had the best and closest straight-razor shave and haircut ever! It was an old-fashioned barber shop with only men in it (most of a certain age, including the barber), and he spent 45 minutes of careful scissored attention on this manly art. My spouse left looking fabulous and smelling just very slightly of their (secret) citrus-scented after-shave. My presence in the shop was indulged and I kept quiet, enjoying the perfect moment of witnessing what I'd only seen in movies: the reality of a time-zone nearly a century past.

Piazza Armerina

Think contemporary homes of the rich-and-famous are extravagant? In the valley just a bit further south, Piazza Armerina houses a famous 4th C Roman villa containing the richest, largest, most complete and complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Among them is the famous "bikini girls" mosaic depicting female athletes. There are additional, far larger and more complex mosaic compositions depicting hunts and exotic animals caught for circuses, elaborate fishing scenes, mythological figures, and children at competitive sports and play.

Erice

This cobble-stoned city, with its engaging ceramic folk art, lies high atop a hill that always seemed fog-shrouded. It seems also to go only uphill. It gets many

tourists, even in wintertime. As in other places visited, like Caltagirone, you can enjoy the painted terracotta folk figurines and ceramics, modern and historic examples of a rich history of sculpture and relief artwork. For example, the popular teste di moro (Moorish heads) have been used as decorative planters for centuries and adorn many houses, inside and out. .

Marsala and Isla di Mozia

A small excursion to the very west of Sicily brought us to Marsala, a quiet resort-like town where the fragrant sweet wine of the same name is made.

A brief passenger-ferry ride across some salt flats is the Island of Mozia, once an ancient Phoenician settlement. It's now owned and operated by a private foundation run by the family of Joseph Whitaker, a British exporter of Marsala wine, who bought and worked the island as a dedicated archaeologist.

Mozia has small but very interesting archaeology museum showing artifacts (above) from its former powerful civilization. Even in winter, it was sunny and bright: a fine place to visit, walk among the vineyards, ruins, and muse before taking the last, late afternoon sailing back to mainland Sicily.

Sicily Several Times

We've returned several times over the years to Sicily. Typically, we like to stay in one place for a chunk of time, renting a place for a month or whatever our time allows. That way, we hope to get a feel for life in that area, and from it take day-trips by land.


On our most recent trip this winter (2022-3), we drove by car from Umbria, stayed overnight in Sorrento, and then took the car ferry from San Giovanni to Sicily. This time our expectations got the better of us.

Our Cave Dwelling in Ragusa Ibla

We chose Ragusa as our "home" for this time (winter 2022-23) in Sicily thinking its southern location would be the warmest place for the coldest season in our travels. We drove all day in a thick and heavy downpour to get here, took a brief ride on the ferry, and drove again to reach our rented place in Ragusa Ibla by nightfall.


It can knock the breath out of you to drive these curvy, dark and narrow roads at night with local cars zipping and passing each other in both directions around you. A fairly long, narrow, very curving road hugs the cliff, with a bridge then crossing over a deep chasm to connect the two parts of this city: the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla (our place), and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town) and more urban part of the city. The two halves are separated by the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges, the most noteworthy of which is the eighteenth-century Ponte dei Cappuccini. It all l looks rather wonderful in guide-book photos, but I think the reality may differ, especially if your driving is less than heroic or your walking is at all impaired (as mine currently is).

When we arrived at nightfall, in a cold, dense and heavy rain, Ragusa Ibla looked scary, with its dwellings literally built into cliffs. Grey, cold, slippery stones and millions of steps were needed to get anywhere. I could have cried as I trudged with packs up to our lodgings for this month. Later, we were startled by what sounded like dynamite blasting nearby. We'd made a BIG mistake! Get me out of here. It reminded me of my worst travel nightmare in Matera (see here). But we decided to stick it out and see how things looked in the morning. This is travelling, I reminded myself, not tourist hopping at Holiday Inns. It's all part of a journey. Right now, an exhausting one that seems to have drained energy. Beware one's own false expectations for any journey. Better to make the best of things as they come?


Ragusa Ibla was better in the daylight and after some sleep, but let's not romantacize life in this setting: poor, hard, sharp, rough. Dramatic not picturesque. Verismo Opera not Bel Canto. Dramatic, yes. The main scenery here is vertical: rocks and bits of water falling at a a steep incline. Condensation occurs in the rock walls of homes built into the cliff, and it's an abiding task to keep nature and human habitat balanced. Some homes here (including ours) have been renovated for tourism ( this is a World Heritage site) and also because Sicilians are choosing to live here in a manner better than the past. Our small place is nice and well-kept inside, a gentrified cave with dishwasher. Photos below show the entryway with bedroom (before in BW and after renovation) on this floor and stairs to upper floor (kitchen and living room).

There are, indeed, some interesting sights in Ragusa. it would be a good place to visit (rather than to live), and the guidebooks for Ragusa feature some Baroque architecture and sculptural features worth seeing. What I'll focus on is a bit of what we see daily as we walk around our neighbourhood.

Our Neighbourhood in Ragusa Ibla

Taking a walk in our neighbourhood here means walking up and down stone steps and through narrow stone lanes. The houses (originally caves) are built into the vertical rock-face. These photos are taken from "the street" just above ours, up the steps shown in the first shot. They give an idea of the rough, untreated caves and a "gentrified" one along the same lane. One photo shows real estate for sale ("Vendesi"), if you're interested. Buyer beware: another photo shows metal plugs in the rock-face that this neighbourhood (our house too) is carved in. Hmmm. All part of the adventure.