I apologize for falling off the face of the earth recently. While I was visiting my ancestral towns, I spent a lot of time blogging. After I left on June 4, I decided to take a break from it for a while.
I’ve spent the past ten days travelling around Sicily. On Saturday, I fly away from here. I’m going to Torino to visit my host family for the weekend and then Monday I’m going to Berlin, Germany to start my tour of the rest of Europe.
After I returned my rental car, I visited Catania for a few days. Catania is the second largest city in Sicily. It’s on the East Coast of the island and it sits under the shadow of Mount Etna, the largest volcano in Europe. I took a guided tour up the mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top, but still, the landscape was unlike any I’ve seen before.
We also went into a lava cave.
In Catania, I stayed right near the main square “Piazza degli Elefanti” which is marked with a wonderful statue of a smiling elephant.
Catania was a great city for restaurants and I had a few good multi-course meals for good prices. (Sicily is cheaper than mainland Italy.) Catania is famous for the pasta dish “Pasta alla Norma” which has eggplant, and also for horse meatballs, which were not too different from hamburgers but with a unique taste.
Other than the food and Etna, Catania didn’t have much along the lines of sightseeing. I took a side trip one day to the nearby town of Noto, famous for golden sandstone architecture, and Syracuse, an ancient Greek city with an amazing golden main square and cathedral.
It’s starting to get HOT in Sicily, by the way. Every day I sweat through my shirt and I’ve been getting a little burnt, though now it’s turning into a tan and my skin is getting darker than it’s been in years. But, I am certainly ready to head into northern Europe for July and August and cool down a bit.
Also in Catania, I visited the museum of the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Interestingly, American, British, and Canadian troops came to Sicily almost a year before they stormed the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day. I don’t know why D-Day is so much more famous.
The war in Sicily lasted 38 days before the allies drove Italian and German forces off the island. For the most part, they were welcomed by the Sicilians. Many American and Canadian troops had relatives in Sicily and there were family reunions. But, the war was no picnic for the Sicilian people. They suffered greatly during those 38 days and their cities were left in rubble. Some buildings are still abandoned from those times.
The museum was practically empty – it’s not well known. But it was a very good museum. It even had a simulated bomb shelter/bombing which really put you in the frame of mind of a Sicilian during that time and what they experienced.
After Catania, I stayed in Giardini for a few days. Taormina and its less famous twin Giardini are touristy resort towns. I wanted to relax by the beach. In my hostel there I made friends with fellow guests (from Canada, Brazil, and Australia/China) and spent a few days with them. (We all continued to Palermo afterwards so we are still hanging out together in Palermo.)
We also went snorkeling and hung out on a boat for a day in addition to exploring the area and going to the beach. I didn’t get enough pictures because I left my phone in the room (didn’t want it to get wet) but the area was incredibly beautiful. A paradise.
After Taormina, I took a two hour bus ride across the interior of Sicily to Palermo, the capital, which sits on the western part of the island. The interior of Sicily is surprisingly brown, and incredibly empty. Sicily is one of the world’s worst examples of deforestation. In ancient times the island was forested, but too many of the conquering powers did not treat the place with respect and today much of the island looks like this, especially in the west.
I’d heard many things about Palermo. It was, in the 1980s, essentially the murder capital of Europe and has been a traditional mafia stronghold and impoverished city. It has a reputation for being dirty and dangerous, kind of like Cleveland or Detroit. But I have been pleasantly surprised by it. I thought Catania was much dirtier, actually.
The markets here are fantastic, some of the most famous in all of Italy. The shopkeepers loudly sing about their products in Sicilian dialect as you walk by.
Two of my new friends are culinary students in Paris so it was great to walk through the markets with them. We sampled lots of food in including fruit, fish, and Palermo’s famous Chickpea patties “Panelle.”
We even bought oysters, the stallkeeper opened them for us on the spot, and we ate them right there. They were huge and delicious. I also got a bunch of olives for about $2 which was a shockingly low price. The stallkeepers were really friendly and social with us. I was a bit surprised because I kind of expected them to be crabby 😀
The markets have a strong Arabic influence because Middle East/North African culture had a strong influence on Sicilian culture. I also visited one of the many churches in Palermo that are decorated with golden tile mosaics and borrow heavily from Islamic architecture of that time.
The hostel I’m staying at here in Palermo is amazing. It’s incredibly friendly and I’ve met lots of new friends. I’ll be sad to leave here tomorrow and if I could go back, I’d spend more time in Palermo and less in Catania.
Tomorrow, I’m going to Agrigento, Sicily for a one night stay to visit some very famous Greek temples. Then I’m headed back to the Catania airport to fly to Turin and visit my host family before going to Germany.
I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of Sicily in almost three weeks. There are so many things I wanted to see here that I didn’t make it to. In mainland Italy, famous sights are concentrated in the big cities so it’s easy to get to them all. In Sicily, there are many small towns and sights which are tough to travel to by public transportation. It’s possible but hard to see them all that way.
One example – the town of Corleone, famous for various reasons, is about two hours from here by bus. There they have an anti-mafia museum which I would have liked to visit. Sicilians have struggled against the mafia for hundreds of years, but the typical modus operandi for them is to pretend it doesn’t exist in conversation – look the other way. When I asked the girl working at my hostel about the bus to Corleone, she was visibly uncomfortable at the mere mention of the town. This attitude actually helps the mafia more than anything. It’s the code of silence.
The goal of the museum is to get people talking openly about the mafia in order to oppose it. Today in Sicily and in Italy in general the mafia is probably weaker than ever, but it still exists. I have seen on Italian news protests of the mafia and the anti-mafia movement is stronger than ever. I would have liked to visit this museum, but it would have been four hours on a bus for a one hour visit so I decided not to. I did visit today in Palermo “Piazza della Memoria,” a monument to anti-mafia investigators/magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselllino, where were murdered in 1992 after damaging the mafia more than any Italian officals in history. They are considered national heroes in Italy but their work is not finished.
I think in America too many people glamorize the mafia too much. I enjoy the Sopranos and the Godfather as much as anyone, but these are not good people and Italy and the world will be better off without them. The American FBI was able to defeat them much easier than Italian authorities have been able to in Italy, in part because they are obviously much more entwined into the culture here.
Well, I hate to end my post on such a downer note, but it just kind of came out that way. Sicily was beautiful and my time in Italy as a whole was wonderful. I can’t believe I’m leaving this country in five days. I’m excited for Germany, though.