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.

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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: www.sicilianexperience.com

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1. COOKING WITH MIMMO

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.

2.  TOUR OF THE MEDIEVAL VILLAGES OF THE MADONIE MOUNTAINS

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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3. TREKKING WITH DONKEYS AND HORSERIDING IN THE MADONIE OR AROUND MT. ETNA

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.

4. ATELIER HOTEL AND HALAESA

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.

Sicilian Experience 3

5. CHEESE MAKING AND FALCONRY

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.  

   

6. INSPECTOR MONTALBANO TOUR

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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7. MOZIA AND THE SALT PANS

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.

8. WALKING ON MT. ETNA, LUNCH, WINE TASTING AND VISIT THE VINEYARD OF AN ARISTOCRATIC MANOR HOUSE

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

9. SICILIAN MARIONETTES AND PUPPET THEATRE IN PALERMO

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.

10. THE OPERA HOUSE – TEATRO MASSIMO

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.

Rochelle Unwilling expat sign off

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.

Rochelle Unwilling expat sign off

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.

Sicily

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.

 

Sanfratello 4

 

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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Syracuse: City of legends an interview with Jeremy Dummett

 

Syracuse Jeremy Dummett

 

Jeremy Dummett is a lover of history, a dedicated Italophile and a frequent visitor to Sicily. It was while on a trip to Syracuse in 2005 the seeds of an idea were planted. Dummett became interested in the history of ancient Siracusa, he discovered an immense amount of literature referring to this city and surprisingly found there had been no recent publications about this amazingly rich place in english, and so Syracuse: City of Legends (I.B Taurus, London 2010) was born.

Thank goodness Jeremy Dummett was inspired to write a book about Syracuse as it has given us a wonderfully complete insight into Greek Syracuse, with many fascinating links to historical figures such Socrates, Plato, Archimedes and Cicero.

The city of legends places Syracuse firmly in Sicily’s timeline of history with engrossing insights into Roman Sicily, the early catholic church, the Byzantine and Arab periods and an intriguing look at Caravaggio’s connection to the city.

The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the history of Syracuse written in a wonderfully conversational style and its second part is a general guide to the city where Dummett gives us the benefit of his extensive knowledge as a frequent visitor.

Syracuse: City of legends is both an excellent general history of Sicily, a great resource for anyone wanting to know more about this place from its origins to recent times and it is a good general tourist guide for first time visitors. It is marvellous to see such a dedicated academic focus on this part of Sicily as there really isn’t anything around in english for visitors to read.

I recall visiting the Baroque city of Noto last year which is near Syracuse and asking around at many bookstores for a good general history book about this city but I only managed to find one in Italian which was an architectural book about the project to rebuild the city after a major earthquake. Would I be brave enough to suggest Jeremy Dummett tackle Noto sometime in the future?

Dummett published another book in 2015 about Palermo and I look forward to any other future projects. I did a brief email interview with him last year as he was launching his new book in May and we talked more about this work.

 

Jeremy Dummett quote

 

Tell us about your first book Syracuse: City of Legends.

It tells the story of Syracuse, from its foundation by Greeks in the eighth century BC up to modern times, combined with a survey of the monuments. It is the first historical guide to the city.

Why Syracuse? What brought you to this place for the subject of a book?

The book developed out of several visits to Sicily, staying in Syracuse. I could find no book that told the story of the city, which is filled with monuments from different eras. The atmosphere of the place struck my imagination. Back in London, I started research out of curiosity which led to a draft for the book.

And you now have a new book about Palermo, tell us about this new work and how the two places are similar or do they have different personalities?

My book on Palermo follows the same format, so it is another historical guide. The two cities could hardly be more different, geographically or historically. Syracuse was famous in antiquity, as one of the great Greek cities, equal in size to Athens. Palermo was famous in the Middle Ages when it took over from Syracuse as the leading city of Sicily. The Arabs made it their capital of the island in the ninth century AD. The modern cities have very different personalities. Syracuse is primarily a tourist destination. Palermo is the hectic capital of Sicily, the centre of government for the island, a commercial centre and university town, as well as a tourist destination.

What is the most fascinating element of Syracuse and Palermo you want to share with us?

Syracuse: an ancient Greek harbour city, built in golden sandstone. Later it was a centre for early Christianity. There are clear links to the ancient Greek civilisation in the cathedral, which was built around a Greek temple, in the archaeological museum and the Euryalus castle. The early Christians are remembered by the extensive catacombs.

Palermo: a medieval city of the Arabs and Normans, capital of the powerful kingdom of Sicily, which has retained a strong North African feel. Later it became the baroque city ruled by Spanish viceroys. Links to the Arab-Norman civilisation can be seen in the cathedral, the Palatine chapel, Monreale, the Zisa and the Martorana. The baroque style dominates the city, to be seen in churches, palaces and public squares.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by Sicily?

It offers a unique combination of attractions. As an island it has stunning natural beauty, to which generations have added spectacular urban architecture. The history, monuments and literature are all of outstanding interest. It is very varied by region, with something for everyone. The combination of ancient ruins, sparkling beaches, unspoilt countryside and wonderful food is hard to beat. Not being over developed means that a holiday in Sicily is still something of an adventure.

Sicily has such a complex history, how did you manage to navigate through its immense history? Tell us a bit about the Sicilian history you discovered.

I concentrated upon one city at a time, which makes the task more manageable. Most books on Sicily follow the format set in the eighteenth century by writers such as Goethe, which involve a tour around the island. By concentrating upon one city, the history, though still complex, is continuous and easier to follow. Sicily has such great regional differences that you really need to look at each region, or city, in turn.

Symbol of Sicily

What’s your own personal link to Sicily, how have you found your way to this place?

Purely by visiting Sicily and becoming fascinated by it. Sicily and Italy in general is currently going through an economic and political decline, are you at all concerned about how this could affect historically important cities like Syracuse and Palermo, what is your opinion of the current situation.

The current economic crisis is very apparent and difficult to manage. On the plus side it is concentrating minds on how to develop in the future. There is huge potential in both cities for increased cultural tourism.

Syracuse seems already to be reaping the benefits of increased numbers of visitors. In Palermo, improvements continue to be made to make the city more attractive to visitors. Central areas such as Piazza San Domenico are now free of traffic while La Cala, the old port, has a walkway around it with new bar-restaurants from which to view the yachts and fishing boats. A clear way forward is emerging from a very difficult period.

What would you like people to get out of your books, what was the reason behind them?

I would like readers to understand what these cities are about, their backgrounds, their stories and how they relate to the monuments to be seen today. No such books currently exist which was the reason for writing them.

You have an academic background tell us a little about your professional life.

See bio on my website.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

Not yet! I am still working on the follow up to the launch of my Palermo book.

Thanks so much to Jeremy Dummett 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.

Syracuse, City of Legends and his other book about Palermo is available on Amazon, see the links on Jeremy Dummett’s author web page here.

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Trinàcria: A tale of Bourbon Sicily an interview with Anthony Di Renzo

Reading Trinacria

The best way to know the true character of a place is through its literature and history.

One of the most surprising discoveries on my journey to know and understand Sicily better has been Anthony Di Renzo’s book Trinàcria (Guernica, Toronto 2013) which evokes the spirit of Sicily as eloquently as a Quasimodo poem or as apt as a scene from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Sicilian masterpiece The Leopard.

Di Renzo gathers the threads of the history of Bourbon Sicily and its most vibrant characters to bring their energy back to life for us. With the voice of the Marchesa of Scalea he creates an eccentric aristocrat character filled with sarcasm, arrogance and shrewd observation.

Trinàcria begins as a Hollywood director is set to film a big budget historical film in Sicily (akin to Visconti’s cinematic version of the Leopard) reawakening the spirit of the cantankerous Marchesa who is quite peeved she is being used as the inspiration for cinema and consequently tells us her life’s story, revealing herself to be the Trinàcria of the title.

This tale from nineteenth century Sicily is intriguingly dark, gothic and morbid the director directly addressing the mummified remains of the long dead Sicilian noble deep in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo while the Marchesa’s eternal soul irreverently comments on the ironies of life.

Following the memoir of Trinàcria we meet other key figures from this period including: Garibaldi, the Neapolitan poet Leopardi and opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Di Renzo’s novella is an amazing work dominated by the vivid energy of Sicilian history and is a must read for anyone who wants to viscerally experience the spirit of Marchesa Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, a haunting literary experience.

Not contented in simply reviewing this wonderful book I pestered Anthony Di Renzo for an email interview, which I am happy to share with you, where he answered my questions about the background to this beautiful book, publishing and a little bit about the fascinating Sicilian American academic author who created it.

Trinacria quote 4 copy

Tell us about your book Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily.

In one sense, Trinàcria is a ghost story. Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, the Marchesa of Scalea, posthumously narrates the events of her life from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. The book is literally a tale from the crypt, a bit of Sicilian Gothic fit for November, the Month of the Dead. In another sense, Trinàcria is a meditation on Sicilian history and politics. Most English and American readers think the book is only about the past. Most Sicilian readers, however, claim it is also about the present. The novel has much to say about globalization and neoliberal economic reform.

How on earth did you come across the Marchesa of Scalea?

The Marchesa is based on Alessandra Spadafora (1778-1851), the Duchess of Santa Rosalia, who was the mistress and eventually the wife of Benjamin Ingham, the Anglo Sicilian wine merchant. I first read about her in Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Treveylan’s history of Sicily’s Marsala dynasties. A daguerreotype, taken when Donna Alessandra was a shrunken old gargoyle in bombazine, captivated me.

As I stared at the portrait, the old woman’s lips seemed to move. A hollow voice in my head whispered the opening to Giacomo Leopardi’s Chorus of the Dead: “Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve/ Ogni creata cosa . . .” O Death, alone immortal on earth, unto whom every created thing must come, our disembodied natures now come. The rest of the novel followed from there.

But there is a more sinister back story to your relationship with the Marchesa. Fill us in on what happened when your ignored her?

The Marchesa originally was a supporting character and an alternate narrator in a multigenerational novel called After the Fair is Over. She played Juno to the Aeneas of that book’s protagonist: her immigrant great-grandson, Attilio Tumeo, A powerful literary agent advised me to cut her story to make the manuscript more marketable. My wife, a student of Jungian psychology, warned against this. The Marchesa, she reminded me, represented the chthonic female energy of pagan Sicily. Did I really want to mess with that? I told her not to be so superstitious. I was the Sicilian, not she. Unless I played ball, I would never get a book contract.

Shortly after cutting the Marchesa, I was stricken with viral meningitis. For three months, my brain was on fire. I dreamt a jellyfish swam in my skull and stung me. When I described this to my mother, she exclaimed, “‘A medusa!” Medusa is the Sicilian word for jellyfish. Clearly, I had pissed off the Furies and vowed to make amends. After a long convalescence, marked by chronic migraines, I restored, revised, and expanded the Marchesa’s story until it became Trinàcria. This process took seven years. I hope the results please her as much as they please me.

But you still had problems finding a publisher for Trinàcria. Tell us about that.

Dozens of American editors rejected Trinàcria. Nobody, they declared, wanted to read about a Sicilian marchesa, especially a dead one, unless she had written a cookbook.  Granted, Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza.  Unlike that other culinary marchesa, she had never started a cooking school at Regaleali or served as a consultant for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.’s Italian Classics line.

Do you think perhaps one of the problems for publishers was the subject of death and the afterlife? Was it too confronting? Why did publishers have such a problem with her?

Actually, novels with posthumous narrators, such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, are quite popular in America. Vampire and zombie fiction also sells well. But the Marchesa, a more frightening harpy, is a foreigner from an alien time. She represents the unappeasable and irredeemable past, everything secular commercial democracies had to demonize and destroy to justify their existence. Nobody wanted to stare that gorgon in the face for fear of turning into stone. 

Have you ever visited the Catacombs at Palermo? What are they really like? Did the dead really speak to you?

My mother claims to have taken me to Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, but mercifully, I have no memory of this early childhood trauma. Sicilian friends and relatives, however, have described the experience in gloating detail. All cultures enjoy haunted houses as a carnival attraction, but the Capuchin crypt surpasses anything in Disney World. The dioramas are more astonishing, not to mention more political. Individually, the mummies represent the vanity of a specific social class or profession; collectively, they symbolize jaded humanity’s awakening at the Last Judgment.

But one needn’t take a dark ride or a ghost train at an amusement park to contact the dead. One simply needs to be tuned to their frequency. When I was a boy, I was like Haley Joel in The Sixth Sense: I saw dead people all the time. My nickname was Antonio degli Spiriti. Now these visitations rarely happen, which is for the best. Anglo-American culture tends to classify this phenomenon as schizophrenia. I just think of it as an alternative cell-phone plan.

Do the dead frighten you?

Not at all. All Souls Day, il Giorno dei Morti, is one of my favorite Catholic feasts. It’s the living who scare the shit out of me. If you’ve ever washed C-Span or the Republican Presidential Primary Debates on Fox News, you know exactly what I mean.

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Speaking of ghosts, Sicily has so much fascinating history. How did you settle on the Bourbon period? Tell us a little about this phase in Sicily’s history.

The Bourbon period marked the transition from feudal to modern Sicily. Death throes and birth pangs simultaneously convulsed the region. It was a period of repressive reaction and violent revolution. Its paradoxes and contradictions have attracted such diverse Sicilian writers as Frederico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia. As a Sicilian American, however, I am more fascinated by the political oppression and economic corruption that eventually caused the Sicilian Diaspora.

How did you manage to balance the history and fictional elements in Trinàcria?

The novel’s theme provided the balance. Trinàcria confronts the problems of representation and the perils and seductions of memory. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in John Ford’s elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is why the novel’s frame deals with a movie director’s attempt to shoot an epic about the Risorgimento in Palermo during the centennial of Garibaldi’s invasion. That director, of course, is based on Luchino Visconti.

Apart from the larger-than-life character of the Marchesa you also used some very significant historical characters. Tell us about your interpretations of Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Bellini, Benjamin Ingham and Joseph Whitaker. How much poetic license did you use?

Except for stage-managing encounters with fictional characters, I used little poetic license with the novel’s historical figures. Most of their dialogue is based on their own letters and journals or on contemporary newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Even the book’s most fantastic sequences—the sudden disappearance of the volcanic island of Ferdinandea, the grandiose speeches and surreal displays at the Great Exhibition—are historically accurate.    

What’s your own personal link to Sicily?

My maternal ancestors were petty Spanish aristocrats who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. My great grandfather, Antonino Coffaro, moved to Villabate in the mid-19th century and studied horticulture at the University of Palermo. He supplied Garibaldi with food and ammo before the siege of Palermo and sold citrus to Ingham & Whitaker.

Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favorite Sicilian memory/ experience?

I have not visited Sicily since I was a small boy. It would be too painful. All my relatives are dead or dispersed. Worse, Villabate, once the center of the Conca d’Oro’s citrus industry, is now an industrial zone. But I have two vivid memories from those early years. The first is sitting in a tangerine orchard at dawn and luxuriating in the healing fragrance. At the time, I was quite sickly, and my mother practiced this Sicilian form of aromatherapy to restore health. The second is eavesdropping on relatives and neighbors who had participated as extras in Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard. Some of their anecdotes appear in Trinàcria.

Tell us about any other books you are working on.

I am still working on After the Fair is Over, the story of Donna Zita’s great-grandson in America and am currently correcting the galleys for Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe and America, a collection of lyric essays and prose poems about postmodernity and globalization co-written with Andrei Guruinau. State University of New York Press will publish next spring.

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You are also an academic. Tell us a little about your professional life.

I primarily teach business and technical writing at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. This is fitting for two reasons. First, I worked for several years as a publicist, copywriter, and medical writing before attending graduate school. Despite earning a masters and a doctorate respectively in British and American Literature, I still experience English as the language of public and private institutions and the marketplace. Sicilian remains my mother tongue, and my literary models tend to be Southern Italian and Latin American writers.

How difficult is it to publish literary fiction these days? Tell us about your experiences and strategies.

Commercial publishing rarely values literary fiction, particularly literary fiction that challenges readers and deviates from the conventions of Anglo-American realism. As Nat Sobel once told me, it would be almost impossible for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude today. Ethnic writers are forced to network. Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Feste: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, and Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief of Guernica Editions, believed in Trinàcria, but the book never would have been published without help from Debra Santangelo, founder and president of Sicilian Connections, and Roberto Ragone, a consultant and fundraiser, or without the sponsorship of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere

You contribute to and help sustain such online publications as The Times of Sicily and L’Italo Americano. Tell us about these projects and how important they are to you.

As Ignazio Buttitta observes in Lingua e dialettu, Southern Italians and their descendants are playing for their lives on a disintegrating mandolin. Every day, another string breaks in the middle of a song. For all its rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism, global capitalism systematically destroys local cultures and languages to facilitate universal consumption. If we don’t fight to preserve our heritage, nobody else will.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

When I’m not writing or teaching, I sing English and Italian comic opera in regional music companies. This probably explains my work’s Rossinian brio and sarcasm. Trinàcria treats history and politics as an opera buffa. Unfortunately, the joke is on us.

Rustic Sicily

Thanks so much to Anthony Di Renzo for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers thank you for writing it as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily’s history and character.

Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily is available on Amazon kindle .

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A modern Persephone

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

At times I feel as if I am a modern Persephone, abducted by my husband to live in the underworld. An underworld in the classical sense, the ancient Greeks after life, the place where Hades the ruler of the spirit realm abides and where mythology finds its home.

I have lived here for more than a decade, in this world full of ancient mysteries like Persephone who lives for six months each year as the Queen of the underworld. We both live through the constraints our Husbands have created for us. We have eaten from the fruit of love, the original fruit of Adam and Eve, the food of the underworld and so Sicily has become part of our destiny. In a much less elevated role than Persephone I find myself in a dark and strange land full of ancient traditions and histories which are confusing and intriguing at the same time. It is where the foundations of the upper world are, where everything begins and is born up onto the earth. The shadows are deep and sinister, the devil is closer to us than we know.

I am strangely protected, as if being married to a native of the underworld gives me safe passage to see this fascinating place and I am slowly beginning to know the people of the underworld. Keeping in contact with the world above is my life line and I count down the days until I can see the summer’s light again. The darkness plays tricks on my eyes. This place has the danger of becoming a prison, it is easy to be trapped by fear. At times this other world is the opposite to my world and the opposite to myself. Yet I have found another part of myself here.

Apartments at Taormina

I cannot resign myself to staying here forever, I need the light of my home and family. There have been times when my hands have trembled. When I have been weak with tears, woe and vain worry. Depression is a dark veil which threatens me. Yet in a real paradox part of my genetic make up and families personal mythology comes from this place which makes me connect with many elements of life here. My fascination with the mysteries of Sicily keep me enthralled. It is strange, how I can be an insider and a foreigner at the same time? But I have this constant flow between perspectives which balance one another, it is an ebb and flow of both a love and hate.

I cannot push the comparison with Persephone too far as she was abducted by Hades in a contrived scheme with Zeus to marry her off, which backfired when Persephone’s mother Demeter the goddess of nature plunged the world into an eternal winter, thanks to her grief at being separated from her daughter. I don’t think my mother has these powers but all mothers are saddened when their young ones leave home. Luckily Zeus was able to make a deal with Demeter to share her daughter with the underworld, giving us the relief of four different seasons instead of the eternal winter of a grieving mother’s heart.

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