How to explore Sicilian towns


When people come to Sicily they tend to go along the well followed tourist road, sticking to places like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù which are all beautiful and worthwhile but the island can offer so many more unique experiences.

I always advise people to go and visit a smaller town, whether it be tracking down the village where long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or simply hiring a car for a day and heading  up into the mountains, along the coast or into the interior of the island. There are literally hundreds of smaller towns to see. In the province of Messina alone there are 108 towns each with their own unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.

Small towns aren’t going to be as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities but visiting them will give you a sense of the real colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.

You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily and with GPS technology it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Bring a phrasebook

Once you get out of the tourist areas the frequency of spoken English disappears so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks will make you believe you will be hearing mostly Sicilian dialect, but the reality is most people are well versed in Italian although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent. Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language they will do everything to accommodate you, as they are proud of their town and will do anything to show it off.

 Ionian Coastline

Get there early

Get going early as most towns tend to slow down after midday and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time to have breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant which most cafe’s/bar offer regularly) and that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be doing in their town. Bar owners are fonts of great local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilian’s freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can’t go wrong by simply asking.

Chiesa Madre, Sinagra

 Start with the churches

The best place to see traditional Sicilian art is in Sicilian churches, the Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship and so you will literally find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings.

Even the most run down looking church will give you the best surprises. Most churches are open throughout the day, they don’t cost you anything and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services and you are respectful and don’t take too many photo’s especially of the altar. If you are feeling generous you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes which usually go to the upkeep of the church.

Castello Sinagra

 Castles and palaces

Every town with either have a Castle/Fortress (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palace (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and most will be opened to the public. They are always fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history. Sicilian small town are places with many centuries of history, the island has been inhabited since prehistoric times so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again be sure to ask the locals for advice.

Small town Sicily

 By foot

The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards. If you are visiting a mountain town this walk with mean hiking up, discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carved out of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savor the moment.


Feste, Sagre and Market time

If you want to see a Sicilian paese with it’s best face on, then you must visit when there is a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector which is celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.

Sicilian’s are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their own local products, throughout the year each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euro’s you can often enjoy a full meal. There are food festivals dedicated to everything from ice cream, to pistachio’s, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges, the list is endless. Most are advertised through large posters fastened to walls on the side of the road or on billboards and above all by word of mouth. So if you see one be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.

The market day tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and each town has its own open air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets, there can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort even if you simply grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.

San Rocco

 Eat local

Food is never a problem in Sicily, even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta you will still be able to ask them to make up a quick panino and deli lunch which you can wash down with a beer or wine easily available from the store.

If you are shrewd enough to have follow my advice and asked the local barista where you should go for lunch you would already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal.

Generally if you want to taste fresh local fare the best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family run restaurant) or Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) rather than a Ristorante (restaurant) which will charge you more and give you less.


Tourist Information

Each small town has a local tourist information office which is usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight. The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centers so they can give you in depth information about the surrounding areas too as things like web pages and online information is hard to come by.

Sinagra from Castello

There is no reason not to go forth and explore.

Sicily has had a bad reputation in the past but if you use the same level of caution you usually use while traveling overseas there is no reason to be afraid. Keep in mind things like controlling your change while shopping so you don’t get short-changed, don’t leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car, keep valuables either at home or close to your person, don’t take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets. Don’t be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner and you will become a target for a mugger or tourist fraud.

Generally avoid run down neighborhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night, if you don’t see people around it means you shouldn’t be there either and simply be aware of any potential danger.

These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere around the world, Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.


Dividing Sicily into bitesize pieces


There are many ways of exploring Sicily, from visiting the bigger cities and tourist centres, food and winery tours or seeing the major historical sites from Greek temples to endless museums.

Logistically moving around Sicily is difficult simply because of the mountainous landscape, bad infrastructure, lack of reliable public transport and really confusing or absent signage. Rather than attempting to see the entire island in one weekend (which I assure you is impossible), the best thing to do is simply break the island into smaller pieces and explore a smaller part of it.

It is easy to hire a car from any major airport and together with a reliable GPS, a guide book, a little research and some Italian, you can easily negotiate yourself around a particular area.

One trip or vacation to a concentrated part of the island is a perfect way to soak up the culture and colours associated with each of the nine different provinces (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento and Trapani.)


Western Sicily  for example includes Trapani, Marsala and basically everything west of Palermo from Castellammare del Golfo around to the Aegadian islands, down the coast to Mazara del Vallo, if you want to be particularly challenged you can make it down as far as Agrigento (but I think Agriento deserves more time to be savoured and is best to be grouped together with central Sicily).


Sicily can be sliced down the middle from Palermo into its heart to Piazza Armerina, Enna, Caltanissetta down to Agrigento which are filled with much history, archeological sites and festivities during the year.


Then there is North Eastern Sicily which can be done by car from Palermo along the coast towards Messina and can include visits to places like Cefalù, the Aeolian Islands, many small coastal and mountain towns around to Messina and the resort town of Taormina.

If you decide to arrive at Catania airport you can start from there and explore along the coastline as there are many fascinating fishing villages and resorts all the way down to Siracusa and Ragusa.


A few days to explore the Val di Noto towns inland from Catania will give you the chance to experience the eight Baroque treasures of south-eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and are filled with ostentatious architecture, breathtaking scenery and equally rich culinary landscape to taste.


From Catania it is easy to catch the Circumetnea an historic railway which takes you leisurely around the base of the Mount Etna around to the picturesque seaside town of Riposto. From Catania airport it is simple to explore Etna itself and the endless small towns near and around the Mount Etna regional park, this area also boasts world class wineries, restaurants, historical sites endless farm stay or luxury bed and breakfasts, spas and a golf course. 

Sicily is a multifaceted place with endless things to explore, simply do some research into whatever you may be interested in and see if you can explore the island through your hobbies and passions.

There is something for everyone Sicily is a paradise for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, snorkelling/diving and windsurfing.

Sicily boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, if your family is originally from Sicily you can visit the town of your origins, foodies will have endless things to taste with a succession of Sagra food festivals throughout the year and the island has some of the best wine in the world.

There are literary parks to explore Sicily through its greatest artists, if you are after a luxury holiday there are many five star hotels and resorts, you can take a helicopter ride around the island, sail around the coast and hop around the surrounding islands, take archaeological tours around the most well preserved Greek temples outside of Magna Grecia, immerse yourself in the thousands of museums, palaces, castles, markets, religious or food festivals, squares, do an inspector Montalbano, Mafia or Caravaggio inspired tour.

The possibilities are endless simply break off a piece of Sicily and have a taste.


Reading Trinacria: History


 Reading Trincaria is an evolving cornucopia of discovered writings from native Sicilians, Italians and foreigners who have dedicated works to this multifaceted place. This inventory is based on my long and ambling interaction with all things Sicilian.

I have been adding book reviews with the hope of creating a definitive quality reading list for anyone who wants to learn more about Sicily. I don’t think the list will ever be finished because the subject of Sicily simply creates a never-ending stream of books, which have increased with the advent of ebooks, so there are literally hundreds of travel memoirs of varying literary value to be downloaded from the internet.

So over the next few weeks I’ll try to give you a sense of what I have discovered to be useful, feel free to browse around and if you like to buy something use the links in the posts and I’ll get a tiny commission which may result in me being able to buy still more books about Sicily, sooner or later.

There are endless history books about Sicily, many are quite academic but the best texts are those which combine the historical facts in an absorbing narrative. 

Here are some of the best reads possible with a mixture of fascinating historical focus and an entertaining style.


John Julius Norwich. The Normans in Sicily, The Normans in the South 1016-1130 and The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194.

This is the ultimate Sicilian history trilogy dedicated to the Norman period in Sicily which was like a medieval renaissance, a golden age of enlightenment despite the backdrop of darkness in Europe. John Julius Norwich is a formidable historian and story-teller, these book read like a charming historical novel, a pleasure to read. Norwich is one of the best English historians and authors to write about Sicily and his subsequent books simply confirm this, so if you are looking for an approachable way to understand Sicilian history, his books are a prefect place to start, adding to this trilogy there is also: Sicily: a short history from the ancient greeks to casa nostra and The middle sea: A history of the Mediterranean (a more general history of the whole Mediterranean) which continue to explore Sicily through a charming conversational voice.

Finley M I and Denis Mack Smith. A short history of Sicily.

This ageless classic is a wonderful introduction to Sicilian history for anyone wanting to begin a journey through the epochs of Sicilian history. Written in clear, precise and evocative style which encourages you to hear more about this fascinating place. A short history of Sicily is out of print but you can easily to pick up a copy from a public library as it was the main authoritative text on Sicilian history in English for many decades.

Giuseppe Quatriglio. A thousand years in Sicily and Sicily: Island of myth.

I really enjoy the way Quatriglio is able to tackle such heavy topics like Sicilian history and mythology and turn it into a fascinating and joyful read. His insights are so valuable and point of view masterly. Quatriglio is a famous name in the academic world and his books are filled to the brim with historical detail dealt out in delectable portions by an amazing storyteller.

Connie Madracchia Decaro: Sicily: The trampled Paradise

This work really gives you a sense of the relentless barrage of invasion, subterfuge and misfortune of Sicily’s violent history as a pawn in the battle for control over the Mediterranean. Ultimately it is a testament to the tenacity and stoic nature of the Sicilians who despite being continually attacked by foreign powers, stripped of their agricultural wealth and becoming relentless victims of misfortune continue to struggle and love their island.

Jeremy Dummett: Syracuse: City of legends  and Palermo, City of Kings: The Heart of Sicily

Jeremy Dummett is a lover of history, a dedicated Italophile and frequent visitor to Sicily. It was while on a visit to Syracuse in 2005 that the seeds of this book 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 was born. His subsequent book about Palermo published in 2015 is equally as rich and fascinating, I spoke to Jeremy Dummett while his was promoting his new book, click here to read the interview.

Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio: The Peoples of Sicily: A multicultural legacy.

Mendola and Alio are dedicated Sicilian writers, historians and promoters of their island, both are well-respected as experts in their field. This book is an ambitious undertaking to document the many conquerors of the island and the influence they have had on Sicily through extensive research and the use of newly uncovered historical documents. The result is a wonderful introduction to the history of Sicily but written in a very stifled academic language, with some repetition. Unfortunately Mendola and Alio lack the storytelling skills of other well-known English historians yet their work is a wonderful testament to the work of local historians. 

Jacqueline Alio: Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens and Rebels

This fascinating historical textbook represents one of very few works dedicated to great women in Sicily’s history. It is a lovingly researched book, filled with insight into powerful women who have often been pushed to the side by history, but who have contributed immensely to the islands culture. Some chapters are a little scant with information simply because of a lack of historical documentation available, but nonetheless this volume still sheds some light onto more subtle aspects of how powerful women influenced Sicily’s history.

Sandra Benjamin. Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History.

This is another pleasant journey through Sicilian history, which takes us up to modern times. Benjamin does such a wonderful job of wading through more than three thousand years of historical material, bringing us through to today in an effortlessly entertaining style. This is the way history should be written with a vivid and engaging voice.

As I mentioned before there are literally hundreds of history books about Sicily but these are some which I’ve particularly enjoyed reading.

What is your favourite history book about Sicily? Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve missed any which should be on this list.  I’m always open to suggestions.

And if you’ve written a book about Sicily, send it to me (  I’m continually searching for new books to read.

I look forward to suggesting more books over the next few weeks…

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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.

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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.

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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:

Sicilian Experience5



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.

Sicilian Experience 2


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.

Sicilian Experience 3


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.

Sicilian experience 1


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

COSI post illustration

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.


COSI title april

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.

COSI April post1 (1)

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):