For a better life: the migrant experience


The Sicily of Sicilian migrants exists only in their memories like the faded dreams of a past youth, vivid in the mind’s eye, too idealised to be true. Memories distort the events of everyday life as they are created by the senses and are carved into the human mind by emotions. We remember many things like people’s faces, places, aromas, personalities, situations, the people we love and hate, nightmares and desires. Memories are subjective and exist in the fluid part of the brain which can be easily distorted yet paradoxically remain extremely vivid.

Sicily is where all contradictions come together to concoct a place dominated by superstitions, fears, harsh and sweet memories, characters, traditions, endless stories of fantasy and passion, mythology, religion, violence, eccentricity and timelessness. Sicily is where the random and implausible come together. It would take many lifetimes to understand its origins, personality and soul. Sicily is where remnants of memories connected to past lifetimes are discovered.

This island is a real enigma shaped by an interminable amount of history which hasn’t always treated the place well, ever since there has been human life Sicily has been inhabited, sometimes peacefully but mostly violently with many centuries of unrest and conflict which has ravaged this place, many towns are filled with the spirit of often self-inflicted bloodshed and defeat.


Sicilian’s have developed an amazing resilience, past generations have lost so much and have been so disadvantaged, yet they have always been able to live in the moment and appreciate the smaller things in life because what you are is so much greater than your situation. So if you want to socialize, drink good wine, eat the best meal in your life and learn to live every moment to the full then defiantly visit Sicily.

Throughout all of history Sicilians have been immigrants, whether it be moving within their island as agricultural workers have always done, following the seasonal harvests around the isle, from wheat in the summer, to olives and citrus in the winter. From the post world war periods which took them to the America’s and Australia. Or other generations who moved closer to home in Northern Italy to work in the factories in the 1960’s and further North still into the heavily industrialised European countries such as Germany in the 1980‘s. And now the new generation of graduates living and working all around the world today.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

It always irritates me to hear people say how their grandparents, great grandparents or other relatives moved from Sicily to America, Australia, Canada or any other destination, so they could build a better life. These migrants didn’t know if they were going to have a better life, many returned home poorer than they left, others persisted and managed to fashion out a good life in Sicily. They simply went where the work was. Others were lucky, working hard all of their lives, educating themselves and their families and now future generations are wealthy and prospering. The legacy of migrants, is the ability to persist, work and to pull themselves and future generations up through life.

I don’t think the children, grand children or great-grandchildren should ever look down on Sicily. It is an ancient place filled with history, with a unique energy, vivaciousness and life. A life lived in Sicily isn’t about being poor or underprivileged it’s about having the strength to overcome. It is about a community which is like an extended family that protects one another, it is about dropping everything and helping out if there is an emergency or simply taking the moment to stop and say hello.

It is the Sicilian blood in migrant veins which has made them thrive, it has given them the drive, the persistence to overcome, the shrewdness to navigate life and the energy to hustle through difficult times. Remember you are where you are thanks to the sacrifice of generations before you, so be humble and thankful for being of Sicilian heritage. No only Sicilians but migrants from any time or origin are exceptional as they are made to survive and prosper.

Rochelle Unwilling expat sign off

The Madonna of Tindari


Sicilian poet and Nobel Prize winner Salvatore Quasimodo immortalised the ancient town of Tindari in his poem titled: The wind at Tindari, which sketches out the timeless nature of the religious sanctuary high in the mountains of the Tyrrhenian coast in the north-eastern province of Messina.

Quasimodo’s poem is as relevant today as it was in the nineteen twenties when it was first published. Today the Basilica of Tindari still tantalizingly rests between the mountain tops above the sea drawing people’s eyes to it from kilometers, its distinctive golden dome like an exotic mirage on the horizon.

At Tindari Quasimodo finds peace from many restless spirits, secrets and lost memories of the Sicily which he left behind, his reflections bringing him back to a place immersed in the tranquility of the classical epoch. The treacherous precipices below the town are easier to negotiate today thanks to the modern road yet same eternal wind still blows through the gracious pine trees and characteristic weeping elms which line the streets by the ancient ruins.


Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in approximately fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looking out onto the Bay of Patti stretching up to Cape Milazzo made it a perfect to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina. It was an important centre during ancient Greek times, a fertile zone high along the mountains near the coastline. The town’s early industries included the production of fine wines, precious olive oil and ceramics which made it a focus of rich trade and commerce.


Many traces of the complex past are preserved in the town for example while climbing along the road up to the settlement, the original ancient pilgrims trail accompanies you along side the modern road which winds its way to the top of Capo Tindari passing along-side the city’s ancient walls, built during the reign of Dionysius from three hundred and sixteen to three hundred and fifty-four A.D. The road ascends gently up to the sanctuary and the main church which is an attraction for both pilgrims and tourists alike.

Hiking up from the main car park below the church the road rises, up to the peak of Tindari. During the summer the road is closed and electric busses zip up and down every fifteen minutes. The souvenir shops begin directly after the parking area and are filled with the usual kitsch mixture of postcards, commemorative plates, ceramics, religious icons, rosary beads, beach balls, plastic toys, volcanic rock from Etna, Sicilian horse and cart models, tambourines and endless other knick knacks.

Roadside stalls continue to present themselves up into the aptly named Piazza Salvatore Quasimodo which is directly in front of the basilica, only to resume on the other side of the square along the road at the centre of Tindari which winds its way down to the ancient amphitheater, archeological site and museum.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern construction, work beginning on it began in the late nineteen fifties, after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

Source: I stock by Getty Images
Source: I stock by Getty Images

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo ship which was returning from the middle east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons which were seen as a form of idol worship by the Byzantines of the late Roman empire. As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay under modern Tindari.

After the storm passed by the crew found they couldn’t move out of the inlet. So they lightened their load discarding cargo on the beach, including the casket with the statue of the Madonna. It is said the dark skinned Madonna chose her own sanctuary as immediately after she was offloaded the ship was able to continue its journey.

The origin of the ship and its final destination are unknown but the casket was soon discovered by local fishermen, who were obviously surprised by the discovery of such a precious artwork and took it as a miracle. The sculpture was placed in the highest and most beautiful part of Tindari, where a small Christian community was already beginning to flourish. The original church is inside the modern basilica which has been built around it leaving the original site in tact inside the new construction. Many locals choose to be married in the original sandstone church with its medieval mosaics and intimate ambiance, it has become quite an exclusive church.


Inside the external church of the Madonna everything is opulent, shiny and gaudy. In the usual Baroque nature of Sicilian churches the parade of masterpieces begins with a spectacularly intricate stainglass windows which take up most of the side walls, the most detailed found in the entrance framed with elaborate marble floors and gold details which create an exorbitant sense of extravagance.

The spectacle continues inside the church with detailed mosaics which illustrate the stations of the cross. Each mosaics is an explosion of technicolour, everyone is a life-sized panel and allows you to virtually walk right into biblical times and into Jesus’s life. The amazing detail include the clothes, everyday objects and the natural landscape which have been carefully designed and arranged by a skilled set designer.


Reaching the front altar of the church, bronze angels hold up a golden pedestal at their apex, framed by a protective glass case, is the statue of the Madonna.  Everything surrounding the relic has been created to glorify the Virgin Mary yet the humbleness of the Madonna’s image is quite subversive when compared to the rest of the Basilica’s intricacies.

The icon is small about fifty centimetres it is quite far away yet the exotic elements of its design are obvious. This Madonna and child are in the style of an African wood carving, yet the elegant detail of the Madonna’s face and the complex design of her clothing and fine crown suggests the hand of a more refined artist. Her clothes are a tangerine colour with golden trimmings and lashings of woven gold inlays to her headdress and cloak.

 The whole church draws you towards the sculpture which is the main focus for pilgrims and its ancient quality creates an undeniable mystique. She looks out from her glass case as if she has been there for an eternity, a timeless icon of faith, motherhood and goodness. She is a mixture of pagan Goddess, nature deity and early Byzantine religious icon. 

Details of the statues origins are a little sketchy at best but most experts agree there are a mixture of oriental, African and Byzantine influences in the original design. In nineteen ninety-five the statue was presented for restoration at Palermo and after an intensive seven month period of work many new elements of her design were discovered.

Before the restoration the statue was covered in white silk embroidered in gold and crowned with in gold, adorned in coloured stones while holding a small world globe and a crucifix. In reality under the silk covering she held the child Jesus dressed in a tunic. This additional decoration is typical of the manipulation of religious icons throughout the ages according to popular customs.


In the eighteenth century for example the Madonna is described as being dressed in red with a star shaped halo, blue mantle and golden shoes. During the restoration, the right hand was found to be covered in various materials which were wrapped around the fingers, including pieces of wire, chalk and colours. These were part of an earlier intervention in the eighteenth century which altered the statue in order for it to hold an elaborate flower arrangement.

After the cleaning of the statue the Madonna’s eyes were found to be opened and not closed, an effect caused by layers of many centuries of dust and smoke. The form of her eyes aren’t Byzantine or Latin American, they are middle eastern, Syrian or Palestinian. The facial design is Arabic and the signs on her face replicate the energy and lines used by Egyptian or Assyrian women.

There are many contrasting elements in the statue’s dress which suggest a variety of influences during its creation. The Madonna’s headdress is a testament to the pre-existing Hellenistic traditions of the Middle East area. On the upper part of her veil there are traces of orange-red laces which were part of an original ornamental design largely erased by repainting in gold. The mantle around the Madonna isn’t Byzantine but rather is Latin in a deep pink colour, with decorations of golden patterns in the medieval style. The clothing of the child Jesus instead is moulded by the pure Byzantine style in a typical Greek tunic with red and pink hues.

 Apart from the mixture of European and Eastern designs there is the wooden used for the statue itself, a dark Cypress, typically found in the South of France. The origins of the statue and the artist who created it fuse elements from both Eastern and Western traditions, influenced by the Constantinople school and the traditions of the Middle East.


The Madonna of Tindari also represents the phenomenon of the cult of the dark-skinned Madonna which has been dispersed throughout the world in the Roman Catholic Church. This unique following of the this type of Virgin Mary figure is in intriguing area of anthropological and theological research. 

Olive skinned Marian statues or paintings are of mainly Medieval origin from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. There are literally hundreds of examples of these dark-skinned Madonnas venerated throughout the world because of the miraculous nature of the image.

Examples include: Our Lady of Altötting (Germany), Our lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Jasna Gora (Poland), Our Lady of Montserrat (Spain) and of course Our Lady of Tindari (Sicily).

A notable study into the cult of the Black Madonna was made by Leonard Moss in nineteen fifty-two, in which one hundred samples of dark-skinned Madonna statues from around the world were classified into three broad categories.

The first included Madonna icons with physiognomy and skin pigmentation which match the indigenous population, as in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico).

Secondly there are art works which have turned black through specific circumstances such as general deterioration over the ages, which is the case with Our lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), while Our Lady of Altötting (Germany) was rescued from a burning church, leaving it smoke damaged.

Thirdly there is a residual category of Madonna statues which have no real explanation regarding their darkness, The Madonna of the Tindari falls into this final category.

One interesting theory suggests some Madonnas were blackened to illustrate a quote from the Song of Songs in the bible, which became popular during the time of the religious Crusades. The same quote which is inscribed at the base of the Madonna at Tindari: Negra sum sed Formosa which translates to “I am black but beautiful.”  


Comparative religionist Stephen Benko believes the ‘dark brown Madonna’ is the ancient earth goddess converted into a Christian context. Many goddesses from pagan religions were painted black to reflect a connection to the fertility of the soil, including Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres and others. The Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility and the Greek equivalent, Demeter derives from Ge-meter or earth mother was worshipped throughout Sicily and Tindari was the site of a former temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele.

Some earlier portraits and statues of the Madonna are said to have been created by Saint Luke the Evangelist, who lived as a contemporary to Jesus and his Mother. So these early depictions of Mary which accentuate her ethnic appearance are considered authentic portraits of the Madonna, influencing the creation of many medieval religious icons.

Regardless of religious belief or faith this statue is a universal symbol of unity between cultures, serenity and timelessness. Its true beauty lies on its ability to survive throughout the ages, its simplicity and its interpretive ability.

The Madonna of Tindari looks directly at you with her dark eyes and tanned skin and together with the wise adult Jesus child in her arms provokes you and invites you to look deeply into their fascinating mystery beyond the extravagant circus which plays out around her.

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The city of giants

Messina 1

Of all the major cities in Sicily, Messina is the one with which I am most familiar, simply because it is physically closer to where I live. Palermo can be too decrepit and full of crime, Catania is just plain dirty and dangerous and the others are simply too complicated to travel to for me. While Messina battles with the usual problems of a big city it is more cosmopolitan, intriguing and easy to explore.

Each of Sicily’s capitals have their particular historical appeal for instance Palermo with its boundless decaying palazzi and works of art, or Catania with its cacophony of sights and sounds covered in archaic lava. Messina’s intriguing mixture of mythology, legend and history is an alluring concoction which is more attractive than the usual heavily tangled histories of other Italian cities.

In Sicily legends are often taught with the seriousness of any history lesson and historical figures become easily exchanged with characters in myths. This combination of seemingly contrasting elements creates a world of paradox, marrying together many unlikely elements.

Messina is Christian and pagan, old and new, historic and mythological, it contains many contrasts which exist side by side, spread out between the sea and the mountains, separated from the rest of Italy by a strait which seems easily traversed yet creates an immense sense of distance from the mainland.

Messina looks tranquil, the public servants are ordered enough, yet the laziness, corruption and apathy runs as deep as the rest of Sicily.  Messina’s intricacies stem from the fact that the city has always controlled the marine passage between Sicily and the mainland. Its strategic importance means all invaders from Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean have passed through this port, leaving behind their imprints in the local culture.

Physically approaching Messina in every direction reveals its striking geographical layout, sandwiched between a natural harbour and the mountains. Driving down from autostrada takes you all the way through the mountain tops via a series of tunnels bored through the ancient rocks. The passageways are punctuated by strips of roads balancing themselves on cement columns hundreds of meters high like giant stilts, looking out onto breathtaking views for brief moments.

Taking the autostrada exit towards the centre of Messina and the port, the highway turns though Mount Petoritani which form the outside border of Messina producing its amphitheatre shape. The modern city is slowly climbing up into the mountains with sections cutting themselves up high into endless apartment buildings which push the city upwards away from the sea.

The slopes of Mount Peloritani are Messina’s foundation and in ancient times it was known as the hill of Neptune, the ridge to its north descended to the temple of Poseiodon, protector of sailors.

Fountain piazza duomo Messina

One of the most spectacular curves down to the city shows off the stunning panorama at the strait of Messina. Looking through a heavy steel barrier grill, the expansive city curves out in a giant semi circle.

The tip of the Strait seems to be reaching out for Calabria’s coast on the other side of mainland Italy, which is trying to grab onto Sicily, barely out of reach. This spot is the shortest space between Sicily and Italy to the north between Capo Peloro and Torre Cavallo, it is here where the project for the Messina bridge is planned, made up of a massive suspension bridge some three kilometres long with two railway lines and a six lane highway.

The Messina–Calabria link has been talked about and theorised upon since ancient Roman times and today it is the source of much political and environmental debate. Some want it for better connection to the mainland to improve the economy of Sicily, bringing in tourists and making it easier to transport goods. Others didn’t want it because they don’t want to destroy the natural environment, or because of a real concern for the seismic activity in the area. The Island of Sicily is moving further away from the Calabrian coast at an average of one and a half centimetres every ten years. Others want to protect the delicate economical situation between local business, ferry companies and the mafia. Whatever side you take in the debate, the fact is the work will not begin anytime soon.

Today Messina is still connected to Italy by a persistent ferry system. There once was a curious train system which saw carriages being loaded into the hulls of massive ships for them to be offloaded on the other side of the strait. A process took many hours of toing and froing and was one of the most unique train journeys in the world, sadly these trains are nearly non existent, most mainlanders simply catching a ferry across.

Taking the ferry from Villa San Giovanni, Calabria to Messina at any time of the day still reveals the beauty of the coastline as the harbour stretches out before you in a cove off the Strait of Messina which is shaped like a sickle, in fact ancient Greek name for Messina was Zancle or sickle city.

The ferry doesn’t make a straight journey across to Messina from the final stop of the train at Villa San Giovanni but instead it curves in a “U” shape as is if avoiding an imaginary ice berg. This is because of the strong currents in different point of the strait which create a powerful vortexes.

There is a strong descending whirlpool in front of the Faro of Messina, caused by the conflicting currents of Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas who meet there. The two bodies of water intertwine to unite and repel one another at the same time. The currents flowing from the south to the north between Calabria and Messina change according to the position of the sun, the phases of the moon and the strength of the winds. The currents usually alternate every six hours changing course or length they are known to reach the width of a thousand meters.

These whirlpools have been easily identified and recognised since ancient Greek times. The vortexes have created the legends of the sea monsters Scylla, Charybdis and the blowhole of Cariddi. Homer’s hero Ulysses in The Odyssey recounts the dangers of crossing between the tightest part of the Strait of Messina as a life threatening and nearly impossible endeavour, from confronting the monsters, treacherous rocks, to the songs of the Sirens.

Making it past the mythology of the world just outside of Messina another tale begins with the arrival of ships. At the entrance of the port a giant golden statue resting on a tall stone column welcomes travellers. The cities guardian the Madonna stands with open arms to greet and bless everyone who enters the city. She is more stunning than any light house, a manifestation of the city’s faith.

Duomo Messina Madonna

Below the golden icon there is a special greeting written in large white letters along the base of the grey pedestal in Latin. ‘Vo set ipsam civitatem benedicimus.’ The words of a blessing written in a letter the Madonna composed to the people of Messina, after receiving a delegation from the city in forty two A.D. According to the traditional belief Christianity was brought to Messina by the evangelical voyage of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The letter was written to congratulate the city on its conversion to Catholicism and is still preserved at Messina. On the third of June each year a special procession is dedicated to the Sacred Hair of Mary, a single strand of hair which according local belief was tied around the letter sent to the city. The scroll is taken on a procession around the city during celebration for the Madonna della Lettera.

The city has an intimate connection to the Virgin Mary, with endless churches dedicated to her. She is the focus of a special celebration in mid August. In an elaborate float assembled in her honour. The Vara, an elaborate cart whose name means ‘coffin’ deriving from the glass casket at the base of the design which represents the body of the Virgin Mary. The construction depicts the biblical structure of the universe from the earth up to the heavens completed with a hierarchy of angels peaking with the image of Christ who supports his mother in the palm of his hand raising her into the heavens.

The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes whilst singing praises to Mary. The celebration has a long history and is central to the city’s expression of faith and trust in their patron.

Vintage Messina

Also in August side by side to the religious celebrations associated with the Virgin Mary there is the pagan commemoration of the two giants Mata and Grifone the mythological founders of the modern city. From the tenth of August the two colossal statues of the giants riding on horse back are placed on public display.

Grifone a Muslim Moor was said to have come to Messina to sack the city but instead fell in love with Mata, the blonde daughter of a wealthy merchant who lived in the town of Camaro above the city. According to the myth Mata refused Grifone’s advances because he wasn’t Christian and so he converted to Catholicism. The legend of Mata and Grifone dates back to the ninth century when the Arabs began to conquer Sicily and is believed to refer to the Arab general Hassan Ibn-Hammar who fell in love with the daughter of a Messina nobleman Cosimo II di Coltellaccio.

The figure of Mata came from the ancient town of Camaro one of the oldest parts of Messina whose name is believed to derived from the Greek ‘Kamar’ which literally means ‘city of the dead’ which alludes to how this area was used as a cemetery for many centuries. Another hypothesis is that the word Camaro is a combination of the names Cam and Rea which are another name for the two mythological giants of Mata and Grifone.

The giants are the perfect allegory of the city’s history with particular reference to its confrontations with invaders. Messina has always been in amongst the naval traffic of the Mediterranean and as a result every aggressor has passed through the capital. Mata is the symbol of a beautiful, civilised, Christian city who converts the pagan to Catholicism. Like the city itself under the guidance of the Madonna , Mata’s faith in turn assimilates the foreigner into the catholic metropolis, adding to the ongoing prosperity of the capital.

In the August festivities the statues of Messina’s mythological founders stand some ten meters high and are believed to have been first constructed in the sixteenth century by the Florentine artist Martino Montanino. The giants have a caricature quality to them and sit like two large Carnival floats towed around the city on wheels. Mata has a stern almost frowning expression while sitting on her white steed, carrying a flower arrangement and the reigns in on hand and a spear in the other. She is milky white with cubby legs compete with Roman sandals. On her head there is a fortress shaped headdress representing the city’s fortitude.

Grifone instead is a bearded, charcoal coloured warrior with sword and shield with the city’s ancient fortress designed on it. His black stallion is draped in regal red robes, its reigns held firmly by Grifone’s muscular looking hands. Both of the giants are regal in their ancient Greek noble dress with details completed in gold. They have a strength and determination which is evident from their stance and their gazes are focused firmly towards the future.

Detail quattro fontane Messina

In the early twentieth century Messina was one of the most spectacular and populated cities of Sicily. The main streets went around the circumference of the semi circle created by the mountains and the coast line. The city was formed by the natural landscape and built its streets running from the higher part of the city down to the harbour quay which was the focus of the economical and civic life of Messina.  Along the four main streets there were endless villas and palaces which dated back to ancient times and at the intersection of these major streets there were four decorative water fountains. The Quattri Fontani were the source of the drinking water for the city which was gathered from the mountains and filtered down to the centre of the city. The fountains were larger than life baroque style statues with elaborate designs of fishes, nymphs and other mythological creatures. Messina was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe full of such treasure and was spectacular seen from its harbour aboard the ships who sailed into the port.

At 5.21 am on the 28th of December 1908 Messina was literally completely destroyed by a terrible earthquake and tsunami, the most devastating in Italy’s history. An estimated 80,000 people were buried under the rubble of the city, others surviving the initial earthquake remained shocked in the ruins of the city only to be swept away by a six meter high wave. Bodies of tidal wave victims were discovered in the Greek Islands and in the Persian gulf in Asia, from this moment Messina changed forever.

Messina is on an earthquake prone belt stretching from Vesuvius through to the Aeolian Island of Stromboli and then onto Mount Etna. This arch of volcanoes has been active from ancient times until the present. Italy sits astride a boundary zone where the African continental plate is thought to be pushing slabs of the sea floor underneath Europe at a rate of about three centimetres a year.

Over ninety percent of the city was obliterated, buildings were destroyed, the very streets disappeared as the mountains slipped down on top of the city in giant landslides. Messina had gone from a bustling metropolis with a population of one hundred and fifty thousand people to a completely ruined ghost town mourning the loss of some one hundred thousand dead.

The splendid historical city of Messina has suffered many disasters and gigantic traumas apart from this earthquake of 1908. The bubonic plague was brought to Europe on a ship which arrived in Messina and the allied bombardment of 1943 earned Messina the nickname of the city of ghosts as most residents fled to safety in the outlying towns.

Messina’s mythological and metaphorical giants rather than destroying it have been absorbed into its identity. Today it is a city full of life with the vibrant nature of a bustling metropolis that continues to pay respect to its history, folklore and religion. Messina in its suffering is always redeemed by its own deeply ingrained faith and determination to rebuild and reinvent itself.

Rochelle Unwilling expat sign off

Under the feet of Mongibello

Randazzo 1

Randazzo squats under Mount Etna, sprawling out along the massive volcano’s base in the fertile valley of Alcantara. Etna has a tyrannical hold over the landscape and is constantly hovering over this place born out of the volcano’s colossal menace. The broad lava streets of the city are filled with a rustic opulence, as if they have been carved out of the volcano, fashioned by the meaty hands of the god Vulcan in his subterranean furnace, deep in the volcano above, lovingly nicknamed Mongibello (literally the beautiful mountain.)

In the burning days of August the historic centre of Randazzo is like a stone garden, the heat re-awaking the memory of the hardened magma’s fire. A heavy layer of darkness poured over every part of the architecture from the jagged streets, to the polished sidewalks and the Romanesque archways of the cloister like courtyard of the town hall. The same hand has touched each feature of the town, like a Midas touch in lava instead of gold.

Randazzo itself is sprawled out along the base of Etna on a ridge between the base of Etna and the Alcantara River which is nothing but a deep gully of hard rock for most of the year. The area surrounding the city runs along the valley and is part of one of Italy’s most productive agricultural areas. The areas around Etna has given birth to the most remarkable wines and there are a succession of considerable wineries in the countryside. Grape vines thrive in the lava soil as do olive trees, pistachios, prickly pears and a wide selection of stone fruit and vegetables. This rugged seemingly inhospitable area is surprisingly fertile.


Randazzo is at the crossroads of three important Sicilian provinces connecting Catania, Messina and Enna. If you imagine the island of Sicily as an isosceles triangle lying on its side, its main point facing towards the left, Messina is on its top right hand corner, Catania a little way down on the right side and Enna is in the centre of the triangle, forming a second internal triangle. You can place Etna and Randazzo in the centre of these major cities at the core of the Val Demone in the primordial heart of Sicily.

Like most major Sicilian cities, Randazzo has a long and complex history which has been shaped by all the many invaders of the island. The city’s founding came about with the amalgamation of the pre existing towns of Triracia, Triocala, Tissa, Demena and Altesa, who were destroyed during a civil war by Roman emperor Ottaviano. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantines kept the city united under a central administration. Randazzo’s name is believed to derive from the name of a Byzantine governor known as Rendakes or Randas who governed from the nearby coastal town of Taormina in the tenth century. The name also has its roots in the local dialect, from the word Rannazzu meaning ‘big city’, which aptly describes Randazzo’s expansive urban development.


The strategic position of Randazzo has made it the focal point of trade and commerce throughout its existence. A symbol of this tradition are the Randazzo markets which bring together the best of the three provinces products nearly every Sunday (with the exception of public holidays and election days.) On Sunday the town is transformed into a giant sea of stalls, crowds and confusion like a Moroccan bizarre.

The open air market tradition goes back to the times of the Arab domination in Sicily, from the seventh century when the concept of trade markets was imported from the Middle East, creating an expansion of trade and products throughout Sicily and Italy. The market tradition is still a vibrant part of local commerce, once a week each Sicilian town has a day dedicated to the market and most major cities have daily fresh produce markets.


On market day Randazzo is invaded by endless stalls selling literally everything from: art work, pirated C.D’s, children’s wear, fruit, vegetables, toys, cheeses, furniture, ornaments, fur coats, wrought iron work, fabric, statues, casual ware, sausages, hand bags, shoes, soccer jumpers, socks, suits, dried baccala fish, lawn mowers, scythes, fairy floss, books, cleaning products, dried fruit, lingerie, roast chickens, army surplus products and endless haberdashery.

As people arrive the confusion grows to an impressive level and by mid morning there is a non stop chorus of stall owners who yell, scream and chant about the quality of their products trying to out spruik one another. While experienced market shoppers rummage through the large piles of stock trying to find a bargain. Like any market there are both worthy products and junk, the challenge is to recognise quality objects in amongst the confusion.


Shopping at a market is an invigorating challenge and offers a completely original experience to the standard sterile shopping at convenience stores or expansive shopping centres. The most important thing about market shopping is recognising a bargain and firmly naming your price, the never-ending stalls mean you can always threaten to go to another to get your price, so being firm and fair means you can often get a decent discount. Walking away from a stall can be just the right strategy to get a vendor to take a few Euros’ off the cost. There is a real skill to shopping at a market. It becomes a game if you are willing to throw yourself into the experience whole heartedly. Just walking through the transformed streets is a journey into the past of the medieval bazaar, full of exotic sensations and products.


There is an eternal stream of colour and confusion in the late morning the crowds reach their peak as people literally dive into the narrow side streets already congested by the teeming stalls creating a terrible crush and confusion, making people crawl along at a snails pace lined up shoulder to shoulder. The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowd, when the best offers can be found and you have the energy to submerge yourself into the world generated by the Randazzo markets.

Here is a quick video I shot recently while browsing around the markets, to give you a sense of the colours and character of these markets.

Please let me know in the comments if you like this video and if you’d be interested in seeing others.

Tell me where you’d like me to visit …

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Visiting Sicily with Carmelina

Visiting Sicily with Carmelina

Recently Sicily Inside and Out spoke to Carmelina Ricciardello, the founder of Sicilian Experience who offers personalized guided tours of the island, she gave us a wonderful list of things to see and do in Sicily.

Carmelina is a charming lady, a lover of Sicily and a true Sicilian who is dedicated to promoting her birth place to the world. And it’s my pleasure to introduce you to her and hear her tempting suggestions.

Sicilian experience quote

After emigrating to Australia at the age of 7 1/2, I returned to my roots here in Sicily more than 20 years ago. Since 2005 I have been setting up my sustainable tourism business based in the tiny village of Sant’Ambrogio on the north coast of the island, near Cefalù, and have been showing guests from all over the world some of the more authentic corners and curiosities of this multi-faceted island.

People are constantly asking me for advice on places to visit and here I have compiled a list of 10 activities which, in my opinion, give you a good insider look into the culture and beauty of Sicily.   They are not in any order of importance as I grade them all equally.   But I recommend them as they have been tried and tested many times and all have met with very positive feedback from my clients.   

Of course, they are not, by any means, the only things to see on the island.   

If you have any particular requests I would be more than happy to help you out.

On most of these trips I will accompany you personally.

Or if I should not be available I have my friend and assistant Marian, who is equally knowledgeable about all the places we visit.

I will start with those operating nearer to my home and office as the first 6 could all be done while making your base in the village of Sant’Ambrogio.  For further details:

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Mimmo is the dynamic and gregarious owner of our local restaurant Osteria Bacchus.   

With his life-long experience of cooking Sicilian food all over Europe and now in his wife’s home village, he delights in giving guests cooking lessons from as brief as half a day or up to one week long.  He will take you to local markets to buy the ingredients and then your hands-on lesson will be held in the kitchen of his restaurant.   He also makes his own organic wine which, of course, you will be tasting from his wine cellar or at table with the results of your own cooking!   Voted no.1 activity on TripAdvisor, it really is an all-round experience to remember.


The Madonie mountains are one of the ranges along the northern coast and this car tour takes you to some of the prettiest villages in the area.  Pollina, Castelbuono, Petralia Soprano and Isnello all have something different for you to see.  You can visit a castle, an amphitheatre, taste local delicacies or just sit back and admire the spectacular views as you are driven from one village to the next before stopping for lunch in a family run trattoria.

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For equestrian lovers you have two choices.   Trekking with donkeys in the nearby town of Castelbuono.   Walk with the donkeys through the countryside stopping to observe flora and fauna.   Proving to be very popular with children, the donkeys will carry your picnic and bags for you, and any tired kids too!    Or take a one-week long horse riding trip to the foothills of Mt. Etna, Europe’s most active volcano. 

Organised by two different local lads, both Mario of the donkeys and Alessandro our horseriding leader will point out all the local curiosities as well as letting you taste manna, a local product obtained from the ash trees growing in this area.


Just a few kilometres along the coast road is the town of Tusa Marina where you can visit the interesting Greco-Roman site of Halaesa which consists in excavations and an interesting museum.  Combine the visit with a stop at the quirky Atelier Hotel down by the beach which has been turned into a living work of art.   Artists from all over the world have been given carte blanche by the owner, a local benefactor, and every room has been transformed into a different art concept.  A guided tour of a selection of rooms is fascinating, and not just for art lovers.

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Giulio is our local shepherd who makes cheese and ricotta nearly every day from the milk of his 200 odd goats.   Always happy to meet new people, he will take you through all the stages of cheese making to the end result which is his ricotta.   Naturally, you are encouraged to taste all the stages from the junket, fresh cheese and ricotta, washed down with some local wine!

Mimmo, instead, is a falconer who practices this ancient art brought to Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century.   He delights in displaying his Lanner falcons and telling you all about the history of them.  



A bit further afield and for lovers of the incredibly popular tv series based on the tales of Inspector Montalbano, Sicily’s very own police inspector, this tour takes you to the area where the series was filmed.   From his house in Punta Secca (Marinella) where he sets off for his early morning swim at the beginning of the programme, through the towns of Scicli, Ragusa Ibla and the castle of Donnafugata, all gems of Sicilian Baroque which are to be found over on the south-east side of the island.   Taste some of his favourite foods like the arancini (Sicilian rice ball filled with ragù or ham and mozzarella).   Eat fresh fish at one of the many sea front trattorias in the area, or taste chocolate made from the original Aztec recipe in Modica.

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On the west side of the island near Marsala, which gives its name to the famous dessert wine, there is a vast area of salt pans which are still operational and date back to Phoenician times in the 8th century BC.  At certain times of the year you can even help shovel the salt out of the pans and enjoy some beauty/health treatment at extra cost.   Also from here you can visit the tiny island of Mozia where the Whitaker foundation has an extremely interesting museum full of artefacts.  Joseph Whitaker was one of the Anglo/Sicilian families who produced Marsala wine here in the 19th century.


This is a particularly pleasurable visit as I take you walking on Mt. Etna over fairly recent lava flows and visit my friend’s aristocratic 18th century manor house. Chiara and her mother will indulge you in some delicious local products and let you taste some of her excellent red house wine produced on the estate. Chiara will take you around the estate visiting the old wine press, the private chapel and vineyard.  Admire Mt. Etna from a distance and also see the 1981 lava flows stopped only 500m from the estate.

Around Etna


Dating back to the Middle Ages this form of entertainment is still considered important folk culture.   Especially for keeping the Sicilian dialect alive.   The stories are loosely based on Orlando, one of the knights of Charlemagne, and the knights of Norman King Roger of Sicily who battled with the Moors and Baroque Paladins.   There is a museum annexed to the puppet theatre but I recommend going to one of the puppet shows.  You won’t understand the language but the performance is extremely entertaining, practically self-explanatory and if you have children, they will love it.


For those of you who appreciate good music, Teatro Massimo is a must.   

Not just for the excellent operas and concerts they put on but also to visit the second largest opera house in Europe and admire the interior which has been painstakingly restored.   Even if you don’t want to see a performance, it is still worth taking the guided visit of the inside.  Tickets can be obtained on request.

Taormina art studios

If you want any more advice from Carmelina, be sure to contact her through the Sicilian Experience Web site.

Thanks ever so much to Carmelina Ricciardello for the guest post, no doubt her suggestions will add to everyone’s Sicilian bucket lists.

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Sicilian Mountain Lessons

I’ve always been challenged by the mountainous landscape in Sicily.

The boundless slopes disorient me, I have problems finding my bearings and the horizon is blocked out by them.

When I go hiking down steep hillsides I am constantly holding on for dear life, grappling white knuckled onto the flimsiest blade of grass. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sprained my ankles or fallen ‘head over arse’ for a lack of balance.

My part of Australia (Perth) is very flat with a small range in the distance affectionately and condescendingly called the ‘Darling’ range (actually it’s named after someone rather important). So I am used to seeing more sky than land on the horizon, at times I feel a little stifled by all of these Sicilian peaks surrounding me.

The Darling little Darling Ranges outside of Perth Western Australia. ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
The Darling little Darling Ranges outside of Perth Western Australia. ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I’ve been here for more than a decade but I don’t think I will able to accept them. Locals barely notice their mountains, never see the danger of a steep drop, happily detour around landslides in winter, curiously enough Mt Etna is hardly mentioned in even the greatest Sicilian literature even if a novel is set in the foothills of the Volcano near Catania, it’s simply ‘Mongibello’, a minor character in a sea of personalities.


Mongibello ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
Mongibello ©Rochelle Del Borrello

I agree with D.H Lawrence when he described Sicily’s landscape in his 1920’s travelogue Sea and Sardinia as a ‘peaky confinement,’ preferring the open landscape of the island of Sardinia. The mountains here are repressive and Lawrence is right to complain about the sense of suffocation. I too need ‘room for my spirit: and you can have all the toppling crags of romance.’ Take the mountains and give me some space!

Nebrodi Mountains ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
Nebrodi Mountains ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I’m convinced the landscape is evolving before my very eyes, every time I look up I see something different. Entire houses leap out at me, old country mansions suddenly show themselves and I’m constantly asking my husband: ‘Hey has that always been there?’

There is no way of appropriately describing or photographing the summits they are so immense and vary from day-to-day. The sunlight of every different season gives them endless idiosyncrasies.

Looking out at the Aeolian Islands in Messina Province ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
Looking out at the Aeolian Islands in Messina Province ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

I really should be used to the ranges but I am still afraid of them and the one car width wide mountain roads, carved out of ribcage on their sides, with only a flimsy guard rail (sometimes not even that) separating you from a certain death plummeting down the rest of the precipice if you were you to swerve or be hit by an upcoming car.

My Sicilian man still asks me:

‘Why are you still so afraid and uncertain?’

‘What happens if you meet another car?’ I ask.

He nonchalantly answers: ‘Someone backs up and lets the other pass.’

Oh great that means reversing down a mountain road and plummeting to my death backwards, at least I won’t see death arriving.

Mountains outside of Milazzo (Messina) ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
Mountains outside of Milazzo (Messina) ©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

An old friend of my husband did exactly that, well not backwards or to his death. But he swerved to avoid a truck along a curvy highland road near to where he lives, his car leapt over the railing and the driver door flung open (of course he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as thick-headed Sicilians don’t do safety devices.)He was thrown out of his four-wheel drive car falling through the branches of some chestnut trees and finally landing in the arms of some small hazelnut boughs while his car continued to roll down to the base of an abandoned gully way, way, way below the road. Thank goodness he was stoic and tenacious enough to simply dust himself off and climb back up to the road as his cell phone was left resting with what was left of his car. With blood pouring down his face from a 30 stitches wide gash on his scalp he walked home and called an ambulance.The bits and pieces of his car were recovered and sold for spare parts ten days later.

And my fear of mountains was reinforced.

Gin Gin, Western Australia, so flat with no danger of falling, here speed is the killer.©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016
Gin Gin, Western Australia, so flat with no danger of falling, here speed is the killer.©Rochelle Del Borrello 2016

As if this wasn’t enough, my phobia of mountains was doubled this year thanks to another accident which hit closer to home. My sister-in-law took a tumble with her car this January while moving to the side to letting another vehicle go by, she was thrown out of the driver’s door while her car cartwheeled further down the mountain. She was conscious and managed to call for help, when I got to the scene I saw all of my worse nightmares. After being airlifted to Messina and a month in hospital and another month convalescing at home she has made a good recovery. Now I refuse to drive on these mountain roads and am constantly gasping when my husband gets a little too close to the edge.

Thanks Sicily for the lesson.

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Culture shock in Sicily

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COSÌ as always is concerned with expat mental health, so we are persistently offering our insights and experiences from the bumpy road of culture shock and social adjustment for Anglo-Saxons visiting and living in Italy.

Nobody in our group is a star struck newly arrived guest to the bell’paese, rather we are shell-shocked veterans with tremendous battle wounds and scars, from what life has thrown at us. Remember, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and each negative can easily become a positive depending on how you take it. After all it’s Italy’s chaos, superstition and paradox that has gone into creating one of the most magical and idealized places in the world.

There is no need to be offended at our post about the ridiculousness of life in Italy and how to survive it as COSÌ lives here and we dive into life’s absurdity with a relish that is slightly abnormal, because we are all a little mentally unstable. Our posts are written with a wink of an eye, extravagantly wild hand gestures, a smile on our face, a bottle of red wine on the table and the ability of an Italian to laugh at himself.


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As usual Sicily is the key to everything in Italy. Many of the peninsular’s cultural qualities have spread up from the South or become intensified here on this island isolated from the rest of the mainland.

Here’s my random list of ten culture shocks which made my skin crawl but through some kinda crazy miracle I have survived and continue to live with in Sicily.

1. Confusing Dialects

It’s normal to believe Italians all speak Italian, but the reality is in a country filled with individualists there are many regional variations and dialects, which are like different languages. In the South the day-to-day use of Italian goes out of the window as the locals slip into their comfortable dialect which is a confusing array of influences from Sicily’s thirteen different foreign occupations.

So what to do when you are affronted by a barrage of Sicilian you don’t understand? Well, don’t panic, stick to Italian, everyone learns it at school so they do understand you and if you thing you are being ripped off you are under no legal obligation to buy, just act like a Sicilian, yell a lot, leave the object in the store and try to get a better price. In general if you stick to family run Trattoria instead of Ristorante you shouldn’t be overcharged for meals.

2. Slow Living

When I first moved to Sicily I struggled with the slower paced lifestyle, I hated how most stores closed for lunch, but now there are many bigger supermarkets who are open all day just in case you have a craving for chocolate at midday!

The relaxed timetable is much less stressful and it helps you to savor the smaller things like a good lunch, an unexpected conversation or a surprise discovery while meandering the streets or markets.

3. Ugly corruption and politics

As with any other densely populated and ancient country corruption is often used to oil the wheels of progress and slash through red tape, something which never should be tolerated. It’s terrible to see but I always try to go above it myself, in my own dealings I’m always above-board and I think most people like to be honest. All the politicking and underhanded deals are about being furbi or shrewder than the next guy when there is money to be made but you can still make a living by being honest and hardworking. (Corny and idealistic I know, but true)

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4. Unemployment

The majority of people in the South are either unemployed for all or part of the year, simply because of the lack of development and the terrible administration of the local economy. But this doesn’t seem to worry anyone too much, work is seen as a necessary evil and many manage to get buy with cash paying seasonal work, while an online job and savings in a foreign bank account are an expat’s lifeline.

5. Inter sex relations and friendships

I’ve always struggled to make friends in Sicily, which used to be mind-boggling to me as I’m a very charming person who makes a great dinner party guest. Most Sicilians and Italians cement their social connections at school and through family and rarely look beyond them, so for me it’s like being left out of the click.

I have some darling platonic male friends back in Oz, while I’ve been told here that men and women can’t be friends as men just want sex! WTF!?! So social life for me in Sicily is about celebrating Birthdays with the in-laws and somehow being gradually adopted into existing circles.

6. Bringing up baby

Having children in Italy is a challenge to say the least, from gynecologists who will ask you to drop your pants anywhere (operating rooms, storage rooms, in the hall on the way to the delivery room), to invasive family always offering unwelcome advice, a lack of private rooms and post natal visitors who will buy your newborn a Gucci and Versace wardrobe they will never wear.

Taking a step back, being pregnant in Italy is great, everyone loves children and family is always important. As a preggie woman you will get random gifts from shop attendants, good karma and well wishes from random strangers on the street and you will get to taste everything you see, as people believe you can give your unborn child a birthmark in the shape of whatever you are craving, so milk this superstition for your weight in Sicilian pastries.

7. Crumbling schools

I’m still at the beginning of my journey through the school system and in general public schools are suffering through huge budget cutbacks (usually if there is a need to cut funding in Sicily, the tightening of the belt is done around the neck of schools and hospitals, which is sad but true). So the schools paintwork is fading, cement has cracks on it and there is no toilet paper but the teachers are usually local and so they know who your child is, often they have been to school with the parents of the children, or are related or know the family tree of each student, which makes it hard for kids to act up, if the teacher knows where you live and everything else about you she can blackmail you into being good, so this is winning.


8. Pasta and pastina

Sicilian’s eat pasta every single day and children are fed tiny pieces of pastina as soon as they are on solids. I cannot understand the fixation. I’ve had countless arguments about the dietary benefits of pasta, too many carbs have ruined my waistline. I love pasta but enough is enough already, it’s not that healthy when something becomes an obsession.

9. Catholic up front

Italy is a Catholic country but I think that’s a bit of a farce, the Roman Catholic church is like this proud tradition which people act out through the year and deep down Italian’s are pagans, confused non believers or atheists like the rest of us. They just like to get dressed up, have holidays and be seen as morally upright while showing off their beautiful history through their church.

10. Women’s obsessions with cleaning and hairdressers.

This last point on my list is a personal peeve and I may be generalizing about this but hey I’m being self-indulgent and controversial today so I’m going to roll with it.

Sicilian women have an unnatural obsession with cleaning their houses, they will get up at dawn to scrub and disinfect or work through the night like shoemaker’s elves to leave their homes sparkling and above all so that no one sees their efforts. It’s amazing and dumbfounding. I really have better things to do with my time, for me it’s a quick dust and mop, then I need to get on with my life.

I love getting my hair done every once in a while, it’s special and makes me feel pretty but there are many Sicilian women who go continuously and obsessively. Many afternoons here in small town Sicily the men folk are sitting in the squares while the women are getting their hair done, talk about superficiality. Not that there is anything wrong with looking after yourself but, like I said before obsession isn’t healthy.

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For some unknown reason I feel the need to quote Puck’s epilogue from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

For more random insanity, be sure to see other COSÌ members posts popping up during the week, for a bit of fun.

Georgette (Girl in Florence): 5 Strange Wedding Traditions around the world

Rick (Rick’s Rome): Under the Puglian Sun

Andrea (Sex lies and Nutella)

Gina (The Florence Diaries):

Pete (Englishman in Italy): Italian Rituals

Misty (Surviving in Italy): Top 7 Weirdest Rituals in Italy

Maria (Married to Italy):

An early Easter in Sicily

Easter 2016


By far the most spectacular time of year to visit Sicily has to be in the springtime, as it is filled with sunshine, freshness and the pageantry of Easter adds a distinctive colour and theatricality to the island.

Thanks to COSI for choosing Easter and Spring destinations to explore as our topic for this month as there are so many colourful traditions to explore all around the Italian peninsular, it certainly isn’t all chocolate eggs and bunnies in Italy (even though they have them here too, filled with surprises inside, children often ignore the chocolate to get to the present inside, but that’s another story).

The magic of Easter in Sicily for me comes out of the traditions which are adhered to with great love, passion and dedication by all Sicilian’s. Easter is an even bigger celebration than Christmas here as it represents the promise of a new beginning, the end of winter is ushered in by a crisp and golden spring. And it is all happening much earlier than usual this year.


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Easter in Sicily

Celebrations in Sicily for ‘Pasqua’ are filled with ancient rites and traditions which are as colourful and variegated as the island itself.

Holy week all over the isle is filled with religious celebrations, processions, parades led by confraternities of artisans in their particular costumes, re-enactments of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ and the resurrection which are all a part of an elaborate pageant characterising the death of Winter and joy of rebirth which the promise of Spring brings with it each year.

Celebrations like Trapani’s procession of the Misteri re-enacts scenes from the passion of Christ, with a procession of heavy wooden statues depicting different scenes from this eternal story. This manifestation together with similar celebrations in the provinces of Caltanissetta and Enna are at Sicily’s geographical and traditional heart, together with many other public performances of Via Crucis in most towns around the island.

Sanfratello 3

Pagan celebrations

As usual with most things in Sicily, Easter is not simply a religious celebration it is also tinged with pagan elements, such as the Diavolata at Adrano (Catania) and the Judei of San Fratello (Messina) which date back many hundreds of years with their own distinct characters who exorcise themselves in manifestations of battles against the devil and evil. All terribly melodramatic and evocative of the medieval tradition of the Passion play which was used to draw people towards the church.

Adrano’s Diavolata in the province of Catania is the performance of an ancient religious play, written in 1728 by a local religious brother, it acts out the eternal battle between good and evil. The focus is the struggle with several different devils and St Michael the Archangel who not only manages to defeat them after the resurrection but also gets them to praise the Madonna and God.

On the evening before Easter, there is the flight of the Angel at Adrano, where a terrified looking girl is strapped in and hoisted along a tightrope across the local square to meet the statue of the freshly resurrected Christ to recite a piece of text welcoming and praising him. Terrorised children are only a part of the spectacle of Easter in Sicily which seemingly verges on the absurd at times.

Detail Judei 1

The Judei

At the apex of the grotesque Baroque characters of Sicily’s Santa Pasqua are the Judei of the hilltop town of San Fratello, deep in the province of Messina. These flocks of hooded brightly dressed men take over the village and disturb the solemn funeral procession on the morning of Good Friday.

The ancient town of San Fratello became a French (Norman) colony in the early middle ages and it is the home to these strangely dressed men who gather out of the ether and tie together many strands of history in all of their colour, practical jokes and loud trumpet playing. In fact even the local dialect has more in common with French than Italian.

Sanfratello 1


The costumes are handed down from father to son. The bright red is a pseudo military style, complete with elaborate helmets, bright yellow stripes, lapels and intricate beading work, they are living breathing works of folk art, echoing the vibrant designs of the carretto Siciliano.


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The most intriguing part of the Judei’s costume is the hood with black eyes, yellow triangle-shaped noses and long black tongue, with silver studs punched into the fabric in the design of a cross, hanging down from under their fabric moustaches like the dastardly villains who tie innocent women to railway tracks in early black and white movies.

Their costumes are a collage from history, their music as loud and confusing as their apparel, the Judei escort a wooden statue of the crucified Christ, as the procession passes they begin to bray out with their trumpets and form circles around the main sidewalks of the town playing fragments from popular folk songs, opera and other segments of noise in a unique assault on the senses.

A deafening confusion seems frightening, but this pandemonium is the most life affirming chaos I’ve ever seen. This celebration has gone on uninterrupted for generations, it went on during both world wars. The Sanfratellani have been called ‘non catholic’ and ‘devils,’ yet these unique characters make them love their own unique celebrations.

Above all the children are in amongst the bedlam, they dream about wearing the costume together with their fathers.

Rochelle Unwilling expat sign off




For other insights from COSÌ see the links below.

If you want to join in the fun, use our hashtag is #COSItaly.

For your ease and comfort, we have added a COSÌ Facebook Page so you can access all of our articles in one location.

Georgette (Girl in Florence): 3 Favorite Spring Destinations outside of Florence
Rick (Rick’s Rome): Spring Destinations in Italy
Andrea (Sex lies and Nutella): Food Traditions that win Easter in Italy
Gina (The Florence Diaries)
Pete (Englishman in Italy): Spring is in the air
Misty (Surviving in Italy): Spring Break Italy
Maria (Married to Italy)

Seeking Sicily an interview with John Keahey

Seeking Sicily

Sicily’s rich history, culture and literature is filled with endless stories and so one writer or interpreter visiting here will never come up with a definitive interpretation, each experience will remain unique. Sicily has many faces and reflections, depending on where and when you visit and who you meet, it is impossible to ever finish exploring this multifaceted place. This is why every book written about Sicily is so valuable, each author who writes about Sicily from a unique experience and personal point of view creating a never ending narrative.

John Keahey’s contribution to the story, Seeking Sicily: a cultural journey through myth and reality in the heart of the Mediterranean (Thomas Dunne Books, St Matin’s Press. New York 2011) is a delicate, intimate, intellectual and extremely well researched portrait of Sicily.

Keahey is an American journalist who has written extensively about Italy and offers us many absorbing elements of Sicilian culture, history and literature.

Unfortunately Keahey is a foreigner working with an interpreter and so there are the usual minor misconceptions, idealism and tiny superficial errors which will identify him as such.

Sicily is not an easy place to explore, at times it is isolated by it’s own geography, mentality, language, culture and landscape. It is difficult for foreigners to be truly accepted into the heart of a community, even if a Sicilian seems welcoming, they can close outsiders out by switching into their dialect and the heart of their local community is made up of an intricate web of relationships, language and interconnections which is virtually impenetrable for an outsider.

But, Keahey’s journalistic eye and sense of story is impeccable, through extensive and detailed interviews with many proud Sicilians he digs bellow any superficial mask to get to the heart of this place with insightful, rich and evocative insight.

Seeking Sicily offers readers a charmingly well written introduction to the island, thanks to a strong journalistic process of inquiry and exploration. Keahey sheds new light into the history, culture, literature and cuisine of the island. In particular the research into Sicilian writers like Leonardo Sciascia and Pirandello, the Mafia, the Spanish Inquisition in Sicily, the island’s mythology and the many different conquerors of Sicily are engrossing and make Seeking Sicily a more than worthy edition to the library of work dedicated to and inspired by Sicily.

After reading Seeking Sicily I was enthralled at how John Keahey was able to write so freshly and vividly about Sicily. I was surprised at how Keahey was able to find so many new and fascinating facets to Sicily. I have read many books about Sicily and at times they can be quite repetitive when it comes to certain elements of Sicilian history. I was excited when I found a contact email and John Keahey granted me an interview which I’m happy to share with you along with the great news that he is working on a new book about Sicily.

Seeking Sicily quote

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

I have a hard time defining this connection: As far as I know, I have no direct Italian/Sicilian ancestors, so blood isn’t an issue. All I can sense is that I spent two weeks in Sicily, in the Catania area, at a U.S. Naval Air Station (Sigonella) in 1986. Friends and I would drive into Catania (truly a remarkable, wonderful city!) for dinner each evening, and on the weekend I rented a car and drove to Sciacca, on the southern coast. En route, cresting a small hill east of Agrigento, the Greek ruins strung along the Valley of the Temples suddenly appeared, and I knew I was in love with the place. The people, the food, and the culture cinched the deal. By 1990, I was making almost annual trips to Italy, for pleasure and my first two books, and Sicily kept creeping back into my mind. When I worked on my first Sicily book, I made four trips, and the connection was cemented.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

As I hinted above, it’s the people, first and foremost, then the culture that I learned about from reading Sicilian authors (plus several viewings of Visconti’s The Leopard!) and by studying the history. The culture and the people are shaped by that history and by the reality that Sicilians have never been in control of their own political destinies. The last conquerer of the island is, in fact, the Italians. Northern Italy, not counting ancient Rome, has been in control since 1871, and the island’s people continue to under its wing.

Randazzo, Catania

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

My publisher Tom Dunne (St. Martin’s Press) and I agreed that the book would be made up of varying amounts of history, culture, literature, with some Sicilian food and food history tossed in. Anything else ­­ a plan of action, a travel itinerary around the island, which places I would visit ­­ went by the wayside. It’s an organic process, and how it grows is up to chance. I’ve learned to be flexible and allow a change of plans to take over. One example: I am crossing a street in Palermo en route to see something I had read about. I was struck by a thought as I glanced at a street sigh, and turned right instead of left, ending up at the crumbling, ruined birthplace of the author of The Leopard. This chance maneuver led to the the beginning of what became chapter one. I never made it to the place where I was originally headed.

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily. Tell us about it.

What is an “authentic” Sicilian experience? The impoverished peasant class, beholden for centuries to large landowners, disappeared shortly after World War II; widows almost never wear black once the funeral is over; women, once forbidden from venturing out of the house on their own, are as free as men ever were; the only carts pulled by mules and horses are just seen during festival parades and in tourist rides; streets once used by the occasional cart or wagon are now hopelessly jammed with automobiles; the thrilling tuna harvest off the south­ central coast is nowhere near what it used to be. And, fortunately, the Sicilian Mafia is deep underground; bodies no longer pile up in the streets of Palermo (in a 15­year period during the 1980s­90s, there were a thousand Mafia death in those streets). The mob is still there; tourists just never see it. The streets are alive with activity, day and night.

So the experience today is one where history can be explored, art of all eras appreciated, wonderful food unlike any elsewhere in Italy consumed, vistas of rolling hills and expansive vineyards abound, and most importantly, friendly people are found nearly everywhere. For example, I made four visits to a small, non­ tourist village in the south, wandering the few streets and speaking with just a handful of residents. By my second visit, several months later, some locals remembered me. By visits three and four, some even remembered my name and would stop by my table at the local restaurant for a conversation. I stay away from the heavily touristed villages with all their T­shirt shops and copycat restaurants with “tourist menus” and seek out the small places where local shops don’t even sell postcards. That, to me, is authentic Sicily.

Obviously, first­ time visitors need to spend time in some of those larger places. That’s where the art, the big museums, the reconstructed Greek ruins are, and they must be seen. I’ve been to the Palatine Chapel in Palermo three times and spent Easter Week in world­ famous Enna, so I’ve done my share of “touristing”. Now I want to seek out the hidden, the less well-known, the secret places.

Why do you think Sicily has inspired and continues to inspire writers?

I can only address what inspires me and why I keep going back. Perhaps it is the fatalism of the people who seem to do quite well living in the moment. While many, of course, speak Italian, most grew up in households where Sicilian, a separate language, was spoken. Sicilian has no future tense, and I speculate this is because Sicilians over three thousand years had no future to look forward to; it was always in the hands of outsiders. Plus they live in a place historically wracked by earthquakes, bloody Mafia control, and occasional catastrophic volcanic eruptions. They view Etna as a giver and a taker: It’s lava­enriched soil gives an incredible bounty ­­ almonds, wine, lemons, oranges ­­ but Etna can kill you in an instant. The sour with the sweet. All this has helped shape a unique Sicilian mindset that has intrigued generations of writers, both from within and without.

Messina, Duomo

Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

There are many Sicilian writers with whom I did not get acquainted, at least not yet. But of the dozen or so I have read and written about, it has to be Leonardo Sciascia and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If you only read those two, you would be on your way to a basic understanding of who Sicilians are. Of course, go back a few years and explore Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga, and watch the Visconti films “The Leopard” and La terra trema.

How is Sicily so different to the rest of Italy?

Sicilians famously do not consider themselves Italian. The only time, perhaps ­­ and I say this flippantly, of course ­­ that they claim to be Italians is when Italy is a finalist in World Cup Soccer. They are different for all the reasons I’ve mentioned ­­ 3,000 years of being ruled by at least 15 or so outsiders, the dangers of everyday life, etc. ­­ but also because of their awareness that those in the north of Italy only want them for their military service or their labor in automobile factories or as maids in their homes. Just recently, a northern Italian Member of Parliament said he considered that sending his home soccer team to play in Palermo was the same as sending it to Africa. Sicilians do not feel they are part of the peninsula. Rome lets Sicily’s roads deteriorate while pouring money into the north. Funds might be sent down for a project, but when the money runs out, work is stopped, often for years. One of my earliest memories while driving around eastern Sicily in the mid­1980s was highway off­ramps heading to nowhere, abandoned ends of bridges over highways with no middle span, unfinished apartment houses and factories, all left to rust and crumble. Sicilian oranges are left to rot unpicked while Rome strikes deals with Morocco to import oranges in exchange for North Africans buying Fiats made in the north of Italy. It’s complicated, and what I have cited here barely scratches the surface.

I know you are a real Italophile and have written extensively about Italy, please tell us more about the subjects of your books.

My first book, “A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea”, is about southern Italy, particularly Naples, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia. Then came “Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged”. It deal with Venice’s struggle with high water in the face of global climate change. My Sicily book was third (“Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean”). Fourth is “Hidden Tuscany: Discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well­Known Region’s Unknown Places”. The fourth deals with western Tuscany, which many travelers to Tuscany ignore while spending their time along the region’s east side.

Roman monument

You mentioned you will be back in Sicily in early 2016 tell us a little more about your trip and next book.

The Sicily book in particular seems to have struck a cord with the traveling public (as well as a lot of third­ and fourth­generation Sicilian Americans!). That tells my publisher and me that interest in the island remains high. I have traveled through the same places many times ­­ for research and to take family and friends on visits there ­­ and I want now to find places visitors seldom, if ever, get to. So book five will be an exploration of the island seeking out those places. I’ll miss a lot, to be sure, but I’ll also discover a lot as well. There is no title as yet. Release is tentatively scheduled for Spring/Summer 2018.

Sicily images

Thanks so much to John Keahey for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily. I wish you all the best for your new book and invite you to spend as much time as you can in Sicily, because only through time will you be able to get under a Sicilian’s skin and into the passionate beating heart where true Sicily is. But then, I think you have already discovered this about Trincaria.

For more information about John Keahey’s books and impressive book trailer for Seeking Sicily see his author page here.

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Sicily: A Literary guide for travellers

Literary Guide

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards are both accomplished writers and translators with a deep admiration for Sicily, their guide to the island is a detailed love letter to the history and culture of this place. Together they have traced an outline of Sicily through its rich literary history creating an intriguing portrait of this ancient isle. Not only do they take you on an exploration of the major cities of Sicily but they share fascinating travelogues by foreign visitors and writers together with insights from the immensely significant literary life of La Sicilia.

The range of experts quoted in this literary guide is impressive and includes everyone from: Italo American writers like Theresa Maggio, native contemporary Palermitano writer Roberto Alajmo and British travelers completing Grand Tours of Europe in the nineteenth century.

You will be amazed by the diverse range of people drawn to the island through the centuries thanks to the Sicily’s unique history and charm.

There is an enthralling collection of native Sicilians and foreigners who tell us about Sicily through this unique literary travel guide, the plethora of names are distinct as: Alexandre Dumas, Harold Acton, Leonardo Sciascia, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, Carlo Levi, Lawrence Durrell, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, D.H Lawrence and Truman Capote.

If the true sense of a place is expressed through its writers or literature then Sicily is best seen through the words of visitors, travellers and native authors. Sicily: Literary guide for travellers takes you into Sicily’s true personality, with riveting insights into the character, history and culture of this enigmatic island. And one hell of a reading list too!

After hearing Andrew and Suzanne Edwards next book will explore the literary landscape of Spain, I contacted them for an email interview, I simply had to know more about this thoroughly intellectual couple’s work.

Largest island

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

After working in Greece and having a strong connection to Spain, we have always been interested in Mediterranean cultures. Over the years, we have travelled extensively throughout Italy and, in 2007, finally made it to Sicily – it was a revelation, something akin to a homecoming. Sicily is the crossroads that makes sense of the Mediterranean and it was our good fortune to find a property in the historic town of Caccamo that we could call home for part of the year. Each visit has widened our Sicilian horizons and we are slowly peeling back the layers of history that make the island so fascinating.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

From the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the glories of Norman Sicily, centuries of Spanish rule at the height of the Baroque, to the fading twilight of the Bourbons and conflicts over Italian unification, Sicily is unique. Every small town is a microcosm of this history.

The landscape, although affected by man, has a timeless quality and yields the three legendary elements of Mediterranean life – the olive, the grape and the fig, in addition to the glorious citrus fruits. This magnificent countryside and history has, however, left an inevitably complicated legacy that is still playing out in the issues faced by the island in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It is no wonder that such a rich and complex past has provided the backdrop to a prodigious literary output.

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

Having established ourselves in Sicily, we, naturally, read authors associated with the island, such as Lampedusa, Sciascia, Camilleri and Bufalino. Rather than explore with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, good as they are, we decided to go in search of the locations we had been reading about and discover the inspirations behind the books. It was a great experience that introduced us to many interesting people.

We combined this with reading the views of foreign writers such as Theresa Maggio, Tobias Jones and Alejandro Luque whose books on Sicily Andy has ended up translating. Back in the UK, we approached a publisher with the idea of a literary guide to the island that would enable others to experience Sicily in this manner.

Fortunately, our proposal was accepted and we were commissioned by Tauris Parke to write the book. Our research then took on greater depth as we travelled in the footsteps of over a hundred writers from five continents who had written on matters Sicilian.

The timespan encompassed more than two thousand years of textual output. Initially daunted, we soon found that one writer opened the door to another and, once we had decided to make the book a circular tour, the structure and authors led the way. The majority, but not all of the research was undertaken in Sicily – we spent many a fascinating hour in London’s British Library.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily?

Suzanne: To isolate just one place or experience is supremely difficulty; sometimes, a simple meal of fresh Sicilian seafood drizzled in a dressing of local olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon, washed down with a glass of Grillo whilst gazing out at the encompassing ocean is all that is needed to fill the senses and connect with the very essence of the island.

Or perhaps to visit a market and jostle with the locals and marvel at the vibrancy and freshness that the land and sea have to offer – Catania’s fish market is particularly notable.

However, there is nothing like visiting an author’s home to bring a particular era and personality to life. For this reason, I would recommend a visit to Lucio Piccolo’s former residence in Capo d’Orlando. Set back from the smart coastal town, the aristocratic poet and cousin of Lampedusa, shared this house with his brother, Casimiro, and sister, Giovanna.

Now a museum, the first floor captures the idiosyncrasies of the two brothers. The lounge, complete with piano, was divided in two with each of the brothers manifesting their quirks in the décor and arrangements. The library reflects their esoteric reading habits, whilst the family’s love of animals can be seen in the pet cemetery to one side of the landscaped garden.

Andy: I would have to say Piazza Marina in Palermo. The iconic square with the twisted Moreton Bay fig tree at its core contains so much hidden Sicilian history in all its light and shade. To one side of the piazza is the Palazzo Chiaramonte, also known as the Steri, which is now part of the University.

The building, itself, with its arches and crenellations represents the lordly power of the Chiaramonte who commissioned it. It then became the Spanish viceroys’ palace and a gaol. The lower floor contains the former inquisition prison that housed the supposedly heretical victims of the Holy Office, written about by Leonardo Sciascia. The walls, gradually rediscovered over the years, are daubed with some heart-breaking graffiti. In an adjoining room is the painting of the Vucciria market, painted by the twentieth century artist, Renato Guttuso. It captures all the vibrancy and tension of the market, now sadly in decline at the real location.

Next to the Steri is the former Hotel de France, which once housed those Victorian and Belle Époque tourists keen to see the wonders of the island, including the likes of Freud. A small lane between the two buildings leads into Via Butera and the former residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, where he partially penned The Leopard.

Detail of Messina town hall

Why do you think Sicily has inspired, and continues to inspire, writers?

Sicily has inspired, not only novelists and poets, but also essayists, ethnographers, cultural observers, classicists, cookery writers and theorists of varying stamps. It is precisely the elements that attract these diverse disciplines that continue to provide inspiration to those who have the desire to share their thoughts on paper.

Most aspects of human endeavour have found some corner of Sicily favourable to their expression – be that beneficial or detrimental to the island’s wider society. Sicily’s cultural heritage is not just a pretty backdrop, but an integral character in much literary output.

Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

Andy: Hmm, there are so many, Pirandello, Consolo, Martoglio…! If I had to narrow it down, I would have to pick one poet and one novelist/short story writer. The poet would be Lucio Piccolo – I love his Baroque cadences and imagery, his poem conjuring the Sirocco wind being my favourite. He was a man from another era stuck in the twentieth century, but even the modernists recognised his talent. The other writer would be Gesualdo Bufalino, a man of prodigious lyrical ability from Comiso, who characterised his hometown as a ‘città teatro’, a town of theatrical capacity for life which he was able to capture in some of his writings.

Suzanne: I have to agree with Andy’s choices but, from a female perspective, I must add the writer, Maria Messina. Born in the nineteenth century, and championed by Giovanni Verga, she managed to bring a unique female voice to a literary landscape dominated by men. She shared with her readership the plight of women who often suffered in silence.

From the journeys in your book, which do you think is the most quintessential literary inspired place to visit?

Suzanne has already mentioned Lucio Piccolo’s residence in Capo d’Orlando; it is perhaps not the most quintessential place though, as we have both alluded to the idiosyncratic nature of the location and the man. There are two locations that immediately spring to mind which vie for archetypical dominance.

The first, Taormina, was the playground for foreign writers to come and spend some weeks in warmer climes whilst waiting for the muse to descend. However, we would pick Agrigento and surroundings with its iconic Valley of the Temples, the Vigata- Porto Empedocle of Andrea Camilleri and the home of Luigi Pirandello in the aptly named suburb of Caos. Pirandello’s home maintains much of the man, including a faintly melancholic air enhanced by the fact that the cliffside walk leads to his tomb.

Duomo Messina Madonna

How is Sicily so different to the rest of Italy?

Sicily has so much in common with the ‘continent’, more perhaps than some Sicilians would care to admit; however, the narrow Straits of Messina do make a difference. There is a distinct island mentality – something, for better or worse, they share with the British. Waves of invaders have taken their toll and have given Sicilians a certain initial wariness when it comes to ‘the other’, be that ideas or people.

That’s not to say they don’t know how to enjoy themselves – witness feast days – but on first meeting, they don’t behave with the flamboyance of Neapolitans, for example; although times are changing and the world for Sicilians, as for us all, is becoming a much smaller place.

In terms of culture, Sicily is the original melting pot, more so than Rome. The common perception is that Romans made history, whereas Sicilians had history heaped upon them. We are not sure we believe this completely as some Roman legionnaires, Greek poets, Arabic viziers and Spanish grandees were islanders at heart and have all contributed to this melting pot of cultural distinction that is absent from many other corners of Italy. For example, the Arabs never really conquered the mainland and so their imprint is stronger on the island, notably in the food.

Port of Messina

Tell us about your next project.

We have been lucky enough to receive another commission for a literary guide and have just completed the first draft of Andalucía: A Literary Guide for Travellers which is due for publication in the autumn of 2016. It will follow the same structure as our Sicily book and will also feature over a hundred authors who lived in or wrote about the Spanish region.

Our thoughts are now turning to the next project and we have decided to take a look at the Byron/Shelley story from the perspective of John Polidori, Byron’s physician and uncle to Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Contrary to cinematic portrayals, notably by Ken Russell, Polidori was not a snivelling, unattractive, little man but a younger, mirror-image of Byron. Unfortunately for Polidori, he was in awe of Byron’s talent and suffered in his shadow. Despite producing one of the fist vampire novels (originally attributed to Byron) at the same time as Mary Shelley gave birth to Frankenstein, the doctor never had any true literary talent. He did, however, also leave a diary for posterity and it is this that we intend to follow by tracing the journey into exile he made with Lord Byron.

Next summer we will drive through Belgium, down the Rhine and into Switzerland stopping at the famous Villa Diodati. From there, we will track Polidori’s footsteps into Italy, all the way to his family villa which still exists.

We’ve also written the first few pages of a historical novel set in Messina during the time of Miguel de Cervantes – although it will probably never see the light of day!

Ceramics Santo Stefano

Thanks so much to Andrew and Suzanne Edwards for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf of all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily.

Sicily: A literary guide for travellers is available through Amazon, for details see Andrew and Suzanne Edwards author page here.

Feel free to follow these two amazing writers on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

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