I love walking around and exploring the streets of Messina.
This city is filled with many treasures, and its details tell many stories.
The beauty of the world is always found in small pieces of beauty.
Like in the moments we connect to those around us, a handshake, a smile, a quick greeting, the brush of a cheek, small discrete intimacies which create harmony.
When I notice a pattern on a wall, a small flourish or funny shaped piece in the puzzle, there is a sensation of feeling connected to an essential human past as if feeling the warmth of another palm against my own opened hand.
Each precious little mosaic tile tells you about how it was all put together. A work of art is created one day at a time, one word after the other, one brush stroke at the moment, until one day you step back and see the bigger picture and see you have finished something bigger than yourself, a work which will speak to everyone.
I’d like to share the little details I discovered while exploring on an early morning walk around the city.
Please come with me to Messina.
Messina is a living, breathing miracle. The city was decimated in one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in European history.
On the early morning of the 28th of December in 1908, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed ninety per cent of the buildings of Messina and Reggio Calabria on the opposite side of the strait which separates Sicily from mainland Italy.
In the second half of the 1800’s Messina was a thriving hub of economic and cultural activity. It was described as a beautiful city filled with a succession of beautiful palazzi, churches and a beautiful baroque fountain which provided fresh mountain spring water to its inhabitants directly in the centre of the town.
Gradually over the decades the city has picked up the rubble and rebuilt itself, some reconstruction projects lasting up until the 1980’s while others continue until today.
Many well-known literati, musicians, businessman and barristers worked and lived in the city. The university hosted many famous intellectuals of the day as lecturers.
Even today the University of Messina fills the town with bookstores, trendy cafes, take away stores and restaurants frequented by young students giving Messina the vibrancy that only University towns can have.
While Messina is usually a chaotic, buzzing metropolis for most of the year as it is the focus of essential offices for the provincial and national government, towards the end of August when most office workers are still on holiday the city is much calmer and more comfortable to explore.
This is when I usually like to go for a visit, explore the typically crowded streets, take the time to soak in the cosmopolitan atmosphere and so some street photography.
At Messina the buildings are always as expressive as the people, they speak without words, their delicate details tell of their reconstruction, the care and love that was expressed by the locals to never let go of their city, bringing it back from an apocalyptical end.
Dolce Vita Bloggers have asked us to share our fun tales about travels in Italy. Really every day living here is filled with journeys and experiences, too many to share in one post.
Italy has taught me the art of being a traveller rather than a simple tourist. Because of the immense amount of monuments, museums, churches and art galleries to see it is literally impossible to see everything, so you are forced to choose what speaks most loudly to you.
You need to give yourself space to notice the little things, a detail in design, a quirky cherub in a church, the colours of different mosaic tiles, an exotic door knocker, clothes hanging on a clothesline from a balcony or a beautiful little old lady walking around the markets doing her shopping.
The beauty of Italia is always in the little details, allow yourself the time to observe the bliss of the moment, the sounds of the streets, a vibrant conversation in Italian, a motorino zipping past, the colours of the fruit and vegetables, the feel of the stone on an ancient palazzo, a detail in the architecture. Italy is a feast for the senses, so see, taste, feel, smell and listen to every single moment.
Italia is the home of the unexpected, often you are forced to improvise and be flexible. You will find places closed for lunch, or will be made late by traffic, or find yourself waiting in never-ending lines. But if you embrace the mishaps you will be taken into place you would never have imagined.
For travelling in Italy, you need to pack a good sense of humour, a certain amount of patience and a whole lot of time because anything can and will happen. Trains and planes will be late, locals infuriatingly will not be in a hurry, tourists will be, and you can expect the unexpected.
Sitting down to write this post my mind is ticking over the many strange and funny occurrences on my travels around Italy. Everything from getting off the wrong train station in Tuscany and discovering a totally new town.
To inadvertently catching the last bus to my father’s families original hometown in the Abruzzo region and getting a lift into town with a kind bus driver who turned out to be a distant cousin.
Disastrously following a GPS off the beaten track and into a dry riverbank in the middle of nowhere, thanks to Sicily’s criminal lack of road signs.
Getting hopelessly lost in Venice, finding many cute little stores and accidentally stumbling back on my hotel after an entire afternoon of aimlessly wondering.
Being caught up in a police blitz in Florence and seeing the African street vendors hot tail out from in front of the Uffizi before the Carabinieri arrived.
Or the time I was on a romantic dinner in Lucca and a water pipe burst in the apartment above the restaurant. While being accompanied outside I witnessed an absent-minded elderly man swearing at the janitor of the building because his house had been flooded. The man had just run out of his house accidentally forgetting to put on his pants.
The most amazing moment was when I went to see an exhibition at Florence in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi which was dedicated to the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. After seeing all of the fruits of da Vinci’s imagination and extra detailed models of Filippo Brunelleschi’s project for the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore, at Florence.
After I finished I decided to take a look around the grand Renaissance palace which seemed to be open to the public.
I was about to leave when I noticed a small door to I room I had inadvertently missed, so I went through it.
On the other side, I discovered a small chapel whose walls were covered in the most vibrant and spectacular fresco’s I have ever seen.
The famous cycle of frescoes was painted by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 for the Medici family and they left me with a tremendous sense of awe.
The Journey of the Magi is a painting dedicated to a sacred subject but rich in traces of pomp and secular elegance. One wall is dedicated to hosts of angels who sing while the magnificent procession of the Three Kings approaches Bethlehem on a separate wall. The kings are accompanied by their respective entourages as they enjoy the scene of a noble hunting party with falcons and felines along the way.
The sumptuous dress of the regal party makes this series of frescos one of the most fascinating testimonies of art and costume of all time. The procession of characters features prominent Florentine nobles from Renaissance, merchants and artists which are painted with such vibrancy that they seem alive. The colours and style of Gozzoli are amazing the fresco looks so contemporary as to seem to be painted yesterday.
Reading up about the work Gozzoli, really had wonderful fun depicting local characters of Medici Florence, even inserting himself and featuring a particularly acrobatic horse who is miraculously able to balance on two legs.
This was a work of art, I discovered entirely by accident, just by following my own nose.
A trip to Italy is indeed an adventure, so I’d advise you to keep these three things in mind:
1) You will be late for one reason or another, so give yourself plenty of extra time.
2) Let yourself get lost, that’s when you discover the most unexpected things.
3) Allow yourself to wonder and interact with the locals, go to local events and do plenty of people watching.
Italy is so colourful you really need to give yourself the time to absorb its unique energy, colours, flavours, art and history.
Think of a vacation to Italy as an adventure, go down the side streets, through tiny little doors on the side of churches, try a trattoria or bar where you see the locals spilling out onto the streets. Move out of your comfort zone, try something you usually don’t do.
I guarantee it will be the best experience ever.
And the most memorable vacation of your life.
Sicily Inside and Out is about sharing my own travel experiences in Sicily here are some of my favourites:
Every once in a while I thought it would be fun to feature a single Italian word of the day and list associated phrases and vocabulary in a sort of themed Italian language post.
There are many language blogs which will give you heaps of Italian verbs and words to study but the idea of grouping things together into a theme seems so interesting.
Since I’ve been talking so much about food and drink lately I’ll start with the verb Mangiare [man-già-re] or to eat which is actually associated with many colourful words and popular sayings and colloquial phrases of the Italian lexicon.
Food and eating are probably the two most important things in Italy as they are at the centre of everyday life, socialising, traditions and culture.
Some associated words with eating are:
Masticare [ma-sti-cà-re]: to chew
Digerire [di-ge-rì-re]: to digest
Deglutire [de-glu-tì-re]: to swallow
Inghiottire [in-ghiot-tì-re]: to gulp
Consumare [con-su-mà-re]: to consume
The most used phrases to feature the word mangiare include:
Mangiare in bianco: literally to eat in white. If someone is on a diet or has had some kind of ailment of the digestive system they will eat lightly and simply with no salt or other condiments. Someone who is eating ‘in bianco’ will usually eat something like pastina or pasta with oil until they feel better.
Mangiare pesante: in contrast to eating in white, eating heavy is about overindulging. Usually eating too much or heavily includes consuming too much deep fried or fatty meals and leads to having to eat ‘in bianco’ for a while!
Mangiare la foglia: literally it reads to eat a leaf. But figuratively it means to become aware of a trick or a scam.
Mangiarsi il fegato: to eat your own kidney is to be consumed by anger.
Mangiarsi le mani: eating your hands means to regete something you did.
Mangiarsi la parola: is literally to eat your own word or to break a promise or change your opinion or point of view in a contradictory way.
Mangiarsi le parole: turning part of the phrase into a plural changes the meaning completely. Someone who eats their words is someone who doesn’t annunciate their words or speak clearly and is considered a major speech impediment.
I’ve been trying out a few different kinds of post styles to see what people are interested in seeing on SI&O so let me know if you like this kind of post by hitting the like button below or writing me a comment.
October in Sicily is a beautiful time of the year, there is a distinct cold snap which reminds you of the comforting warmth of a sweater and the new season brings with it new sensations and tastes which are as inebriating as newly fermenting wines.
While I am always sad to see the end of the summer, I’m reminded of the wisdom of many Italian proverbs which tell me of the magic of autumn in Italy.
This year’s change in temperature has come quickly and decisively which means I’m now wearing a jacket and have put a blanket onto my bead clothes. And this will also mean the quick demise of the insects which have been torturing us all summer.
Thanks to the humidity there are always plenty of mosquitoes, over this past year they have also made many people sick over the summer with numerous cases of the West Nile virus being reported. But as the Italian proverb above reminds us, this won’t be a problem anymore!
My favourite fruit of the autumn has to be the mushroom. There is nothing like walking through the woods and finding little colonies of mushroom clusters. I’m probably the worst mushroom hunter in the world, but thank goodness that I am surrounded by experts.
I always look forward to preparing flavoursome risotto with porcini mushrooms, or preserving small yellow field mushrooms and discovering different varieties like these meaty ‘deer antler’ variety we discovered this year, which are filled with wonderful properties.
In Italian, it is known as the Grifola frondosa and grows in clusters at the base of trees, particularly oaks. The mushroom is commonly known among English speakers as hen of the woods, hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head and sheep’s head.
It is typically found in late summer to early autumn. In the United States, it is known by its Japanese name maitake (舞茸, or the dancing mushroom). This mushroom stimulates the immune system, has anti-cancer qualities, lowers blood sugar levels and is often sold as a supplement in health food stores.
October also means we are preparing our garden by planting our winter vegetables. With the rains and cold our cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, pumpkins, spinach and kale will ripen for us. I can’t wait for the more opulent dishes of autumn and winter.
Over the past week of pleasant coolness, my appetite has already been stimulated. Pork becomes the taster as pigs are naturally fattened up and with the October sagra season is beginning this time of year even busier than the summer for food festivals in Sicily.
From big festivals lasting every weekend in October like at Ottobrata at Zefferana Etenea and Ottobrando at Floresta there are endless things to taste and eat.
From grapes, new wine, cheeses cooked grape juice (or mostarda), honey, apples and other local, seasonal fruits being harvested including fichi d’india (prickly pear), pomegranates, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios, olive oil and many preserves under olive oil (conserve sott’olio).
October has an even more abundant amount of flavours still.
Here are just a fraction of some of the beautiful food festivals in Sicily to put on your bucket list, there are literally too many to put down on one visual.
I’m gradually adding to my Reading Trincaria reading list and so I will be posting a regular quick Sicilian themed book review during the week to gradually extend our Sicily related reads.
This week I’d like to share one of the first books I ever read about this magical island, a true classic which helped to spark my love of Sicilian history.
M I Finley and Denis Mack Smith: A short history of Sicily.
This book was the definitive guide to the history of Sicily for many generations and is considered the best general history book on the island. This ageless classic is a beautiful introduction to Sicilian history for anyone wanting to begin a journey through the various epochs of Sicily. Written in a clear, precise and evocative style, it encourages you to seek out more about this fascinating place.
Denis Mack Smith was an English historian, specialising in the history of Italy from the Risorgimento onwards.An Emeritus Fellow at Oxford, Mack Smith was considered the world’s leading scholar on Italian history for the English society in the post world war two period.
A History of Sicily, with Moses Finley, was initially published in two volumes, Medieval Sicily 800-1713 and Modern Sicily after 1713. Later an abridged and reprinted version was released as the single volume titled:A History of Sicily with Moses Finley and Christopher Duggan.
Denis Mack Smith’s real talent lies in being able to take the often dry elements of historical fact and turn it into clear, readable and engaging prose, popularising the history of Sicily to a broader audience, his writing was filled with wonderfully quotable phrases.
This book while a little dated is still worth picking up as it is a brief clear single volume introduction into one of the most complicated European histories.
Unfortunately, this book is out of print so the best way to track it down is through the public library system or through second-hand book stores. But it’s definitely worth the effort.
Italians are serious foodies, so there are always plenty of options as to where to seek out food and drink while on holidays in Italy.
Today I thought I’d give you a quick Italian vocabulary to use while hunting down food on Italian trip as I’ve been getting many requests for more Italian language related posts.
Apart from the standard Ristorante [ri-sto-ràn-te] or the unique home cooking of a usually family run Trattoria [trat-to-rì-a] there is a mind-boggling array of ways to nourish yourself.
If you are after a light snack, you can always go to a paninoteca [pa-ni-no-te-ca] for a bread roll or burger or get fancy and get it toasted (panino alla piastra).
Pizza is available as a standard sit down meal at a Pizzeria [piz-ze-rì-a], but you can also get it to go by the slice at a Pizza al taglio a takeaway pizza place where you can buy it by the weight. Needless to say, you won’t find pepperoni or pineapple on the toppings, why not try a classic margherita (cheese and tomato) or be adventurous and try a capricciosa (mozzarella cheese, Italian baked ham, mushroom, artichoke, black olives and tomato).
If you don’t mind your pizza cold, you could try a local bakery or forno which will also have beautiful snacks like breadsticks, bagels, croissants and other goodies.
For take away meals there is the tavola calda (diner) or a rosticcheria which roasts everything from chicken to lamb and potatoes or if you are craving pasta there is always the spaghetteria for a daily pasta special.
If you are hanging out for a cold drink in the summer at the beach, there is the local lido, temporary stands or elaborate constructions on the seashore which are designed to cater for thirsty and hungry beachgoers but be expected to pay dearly for the privilege.
A regular Bar, Pub or Birraria will give you a selection of drinks and take away foods. If you can’t find anywhere to sit down and eat a salumificio, gastronomia (deli) or supermercato will make panini on request and they also usually sell drinks and beer.
A daily Mercato (markets) will give you a selection of fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you are stuck travelling on the autostrada an autogrill diner stop will give you everything from coffee to energy drinks, hot meals and anything else required to survive long trips by car or that you’ve forgotten.
Finally, for dessert, a creperia will give you the best tasting crepe outside of France, a good pasticceria is a sweet tooths buffet, while a gelateria will provide you with endless flavours of ice cream to taste.
There is no way you could possible starve in Italy. Actually, you will probably go back home with a few excess kilos.
NB: Like this article and comment if you would like to hear more about the art of eating pizza in Italy! Let me know what other Italian vocabulary you are hungry for.
John Julius Norwich’s series dedicated to the Normans of Sicily is the ultimate Sicilian historic read.
The Norman period in Sicily was a medieval renaissance, a golden age of enlightenment despite the backdrop of darkness in Europe. Norwich was a formidable historian and storyteller, and these books read like a charming historical novel, shedding light upon a lesser known period of the islands past.
This specific historical period is particularly evocative and is linked to images of crusading knights who left for the holy land from the port of Messina and the French Norman kings who battled with Saracean armies who had been ruling Sicily for centuries as a peaceful Arab Emirate. It’s fascinating to think that in the early middle ages Sicily spoke Arab, Greek and Latin and Palermo was a melting pot of culture, education and science.
The first Norman King Roger of Hautville, actually combined the best of the Arab and Latin worlds which made his Sicilian court a single source of enlightenment and wealth, while the rest of Europe was going through the dark ages.
Today, unfortunately, apart from many medieval castles, dotted around strategic coastal and inland locations there is precious little left in the form of documents which reflect this Sicilian Renaissance, only fragments remain of the developments made in Sicilian literature, science, agriculture and geography.
As the Normans pushed out and exiled the Sicilian Arabs the only evidence of this extraordinary period are the remnants of Arabic in the Sicilian dialect, north African ingredients in the cuisine, converted mosques which have become churches and archaeological ruins of elaborate gardens which used irrigation systems introduced by the middle eastern conquerors of the island.
John Julius Norwich is a well known British historian, intellectual, aristocrat and personality, who chose the Norman Period as inspiration for some of his books and his work will make you fall in love with the rich tapestry of Sicilian history. Norwich discovered Sicily quite by accident in the 1960’s while searching out a sunny place for a vacation with his wife in mid-October they decided upon Sicily. Stumbling upon the island they immediately fell in love with the area, and he became obsessed with the neglected Norman monuments liberally dotted around the island.
Norwich has a gift of turning extensive historical information and jargon into something exciting and readable. While wading through the convoluted ancient texts which are the base of his books he was able to reveal the human element to the stories and mould the material into a fascinating story.
The son of a diplomat and British aristocrat, Norwich claims to be descended from King William IV. His education is impressive, he studied in Canada, at Eton and at the University of Strasbourg. Later he served in the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford.
He has written more than thirty different books on subjects as varied as Venetian history, Britain, the ancient Byzantine Empire, architecture, Shakespeare, Ancient History, The Papacy, several Novels, world literature and books for children.
Norwich’s two most recent books about Sicily (Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra and The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean) are excellent introductions to the general history of the island and the whole area of the Mediterranean in. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the history of southern Europe, these books, in particular, are a perfect introduction.
Every year a group from my small Sicilian town of Sinagra organises a pilgrimage to the Etnaland amusement park at Belpasso outside of Catania. In the summer months, the waterpark is open until the early evening, and the connected theme park rides are put into motion as the locals spend their evenings spinning, dipping and riding around until the early morning.
This year I was swept up by the enthusiasm of my eight-year-old son, who had never been on a waterslide and was somehow tricked into wanting to relive my childhood. I remembered the wind blowing through my hair on toboggan rides with my best friend at the tritely named Adventure World, a magnet for children on school holidays in Western Australia, together with summer barbecues and walks through Kings Park, a hundred acre patch of natural bush right near the centre of the Perth CBD.
I was determined to create some memories for my son, after this year’s most disappointing persistently rainy summer. I happily got up at six am, took the long bus ride, paid the exorbitant entrance fee, and made a packed lunch.
The day began by dipping our feet and bottoms into the extra large doughnut-shaped floating devices which took us along the ‘slow river’ ride, gently being pushed along by the leisurely paced artificial current while intermittent water features and fountains sprayed us around the circuit.
Lulled into a clear yet false sense of security we decided to test out something more adventurous. My son had seen a waterslide on the parks web page called ‘the black hole’ and was determined to have his official water park baptism on it.
Now I should have guessed the true nature of this ride, by the name alone, the phrase Black Hole doesn’t precisely evoke unicorns and rainbows. But from the outside, it didn’t seem too fierce, and it resembled similar fun waterslides in Australia.
While we sat down on our little double seater water raft at the mouth of the steep pitch black tube, I wondered how I would be able to reassure my son in case he becomes frightened, and I resolved to make happy, encouraging yahooing sounds on the way down. As the water rushed past us and pushed us down into the absolute darkness I suddenly remembered, I’m no longer a child and I actually hate water slides.
What followed was a brief moment of absolute terror. The sensory deprivation of the pitch black meant we could not see one another even if we were one in front of each other, nor prepare ourselves for the twists, turns and bumps along the tube of terror.
Needless to say, my reassuring yahoo noises were actually more like hyperactive teenage girl squeals and screams. My niece who was waiting for us near the chute’s pool heard us coming down and said my son’s frightened eyes looked as if they were ready to pop out of their orbits.
The worst thing about water slides is the sense of losing control over your own movements, once you start there’s no going back, you just need to sit back and try to enjoy the ride, or in my case scream your lungs out.
Then there is the sudden realisation of all the naked foreign bodies who have also sat on the same mats, seats and lifesavers as you, yes the water is chlorinated, but there is a distinct sensation of uncleanliness.
Childhood is such a wonderful time when you seek out adventure, live in the moment and never see the danger. Sadly I’m no longer in that phase of my life and have become quite a snob.
To my surprise, the Etnaland crowd is far from snobbish as it seems most of Catania comes here to cool off during the sweltering Catanese summer. The lava rock landscape around the city is scorching and apart from the odd swimming pool, air-conditioned shopping malls, fountain, crowded rocky beaches, and after dark piazza, there aren’t many options for cooling off, so the water park is a substantial part of the summer entertainment.
Ranked among the twenty best water parks in the world Etnaland is an endless hive of activity with busloads of people coming from throughout Sicily and many families from Europe. It’s a beautiful spot for people watching, as different waves come in, strip down into bathers and head off to the rides for the whole day.
I’ve never seen so much overexposed flesh in one place, it’s actually beautiful to see how so many people can be comfortable with their own bodies and its great to see this immense power for body positivity. But sun worshipers roasting their skin is actually quite unhealthy, and I felt quite overdressed with my shorts and sun proof shirt designed to protect my pale flesh from sunburn. Some habits from my Australian childhood will never grow old.
On the whole, the day trip is a good family day out, the place is well organised, clean, safe and very popular. The only downside was having to wait in line for the rides, but if you are shrewd and head out to the more popular ones while everyone else is having lunch, you can avoid some of the confusion.
Basically, you arrive, throw everything you have into a locker you hire for the day and strip down to your bathing suit and then crisscross the dozens of water rides and pools around the park. There is literally something for everyone from kiddy pools to rides with names like Kamikaze, Twister, Giant Toboggan, Red Cannon, Jungle Splash, Colossum and Titania. There are complimentary maps available at the entrance, so it’s easy to plan out your day.
The many park employees are positioned around the place with cameras taking everyone’s photos on the rides. At the entrance to the park you are given the option to get a bracelet which is scanned after every picture, and when you are finished, you can go and see your photos at the photo booth and purchase prints for about 10 euros a pop.
For those who are looking to relax on a deck chair by the pool all day you can hire a spot, buy a cocktail at one of the many overpriced open bars and restaurants. If you don’t have an energetic child dragging you around the park, you can dip into the artificial wave pool which is put into motion every hour together with an active dance party complete with twerking and gesticulating dancing girls, if that’s what you like.
If everything gets too much at the end of the day there is a relaxing spa bath to massage your aching muscles, just in case you need it, there’s something for everyone really.
The Dolce Vita Bloggers are getting serious this month, we are talking about food and our favourite Italian recipes. Thanks again to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for giving me a chance to explore the nature and origins of the aubergine in the Sicilian kitchen and the best way to prepare it. I can’t wait to read everyone’s mouthwatering posts.
Melanzana, eggplant, aubergine or however you choose to call it is the quintessential Mediterranean vegetable. Aubergines are exotic, sumptuous, voluptuous and irresistible if cooked properly.
Many people don’t understand the eggplant, they find it strange and hate the taste, but if prepared well it can become the crowning glory of any dish.
The Melanzana is a precious fruit of the Sicilian summer, every year I impatiently wait for its plump white flesh to ripen, chop it into cubes, and fry it up to make a signature dish from Catania pasta alla Norma covered in lavish shavings or oven dried ricotta cheese.
I occasionally slice them like French fries and make my own Sicilian chips. Or cook it together with other summer vegetables like tomatoes, capsicum and onions to create a classic Sicilian caponata fry up.
Sicilian’s say ‘la morte della melanzana’ (literally the best death of an aubergine, or the best way to prepare it) is deep frying. Italians in general love to dip everything in batter and cook it in the deep fryer, everything from seafood, to zucchini flowers and even eggplant.
My favourite Sicilian plate is the involtini di melanzane alla Messinese. A simple oven baked pasta dish prepared in the summer which basically takes slices of deep fried eggplant and wraps them around, cooked, tomato sauce drenched, freshly made Sicilian maccheroni.
In my part of Sicily in the province of Messina maccheroni are long fresh handmade pasta which resemble bucatini. The melanzane wraps are placed into a baking dish, topped with more sauce and a generous topping of grated oven dried ricotta cheese which simmers and melts into a plate of orgasmic proportions.
The aubergine is so versatile you can eat it fried, stuffed, boiled, sliced, grilled, dried, braised, mashed, pickled, pureed, or breaded and fried. It is an essential ingredient in Italian ratatouille and Middle Eastern baba ganoush.
Eggplant is one of the sponges of the vegetable kingdom and soaking them in salted water before cooking helps reduce its natural oil absorption tendencies and removes any lingering bitterness.
The plant comes from the nightshade family, which also include the potatoes, capsicum peppers and tomatoes. Originally from India, China and Sri Lanka. This spiny, bitter, purple or white oval shaped vegetable with distinctly spongy white pulp has been cultivated for more than one thousand and five hundred years.
The Latin/French term aubergine originally derives from the historical city of Vergina (Βεργίνα) in Greece. The eggplant is estimated to have reached Greece around three hundred and twenty-five B.C after the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon. The conqueror fell in love with this new vegetable during his conquest and its seeds were taken back to Magna Grecia accordingly.
As trade routes opened, the eggplant was introduced to Europe by the Arabs and transported to Africa by the Persians. The Spaniards carried it with them to the New World and by the early eighteen hundreds, both white and purple varieties could be found in American gardens.
In fifth-century China, the plant was made into a black dye which was used by aristocratic ladies to stain their teeth, which, when polished with the eggplant colour gleamed like metal.
Also in China, it was a requirement of a bride’s dowry that a woman must know how to prepare at least twelve eggplant recipes before her wedding day.
In Turkey, the imam bayildi is a tasty treat of stuffed eggplant simmered in olive oil and is said to have made a religious leader swoon in ecstasy.
When first introduced to Italy, people believed that anyone who ate the so-called mad apple was sure to go insane.
The plant is often misunderstood by many people who just don’t like the taste or develop an irrational aversion to it, but as with any exotic acquired taste you do either love it or hate it.
Legendary Italian movie director Federico Fellini hated the melanzana and once told an elaborate erotic tall tale explaining the reason behind his aversion. Apparently, when Fellini was a young boy with peeping tom tendencies, he accidentally witnessed a lady using an aubergine to pleasure herself, an experience which left him traumatised and unable to stand the sight of the vegetable.
Then there is the terrible corruption of the eggplant emoji which certainly makes you look at an aubergine in an entirely different way. Such a misunderstood vegetable, yet so delicious.
Sicily has a wonderfully variegated cuisine, its plate is filled with influences from all around the Mediterranean from the Middle East, to North Africa, Greece and many more.
There is great pride in preparing local specialities and showing off the abundant talent of each chef.
Like in most of Italy each region, even town from town will have its own local variety of wine, interpretation of pasta, bread, cheeses, salami, desserts and even biscuits.
Each place embraces its individuality and has proudly perfected its particular type of local cuisine in the way of distinguishing itself from other towns and in turn showing off the richness of agricultural fertility and skill in the preparation of century-old products.
One way to taste the best of each place is to hunt down a Sagra or food festival, where for only a handful of Euro you are able to sample the best of local fare.
The Sagra event calendar in Sicily is never ending through the year and coincides with the seasonal calendar as Sicilians like all other Italians believe in eating what is strictly in season. So in the summer expect to see a dedication to products like strawberries, melons, tomatoes and peaches. While the winter/fall the Sagra gives you a taste of wine, salami, pork, mushrooms and fried specialities.
Most of the events are annually around the same date and are proudly sponsored by locals as a way of fostering local tourism. The events are local, so the best way to learn about them is through the local press, picking up flyers at your local cafe and looking at posters pasted up on the side of the road.
An excellent general guide for the usual events is the site Sicilia in Festa which will give you a good indication of what’s happening around Sicily during the year month by month and province by province.
Here is my own personal list of the more significant, more well organised and famous food festivals you really shouldn’t miss filled with the best Sicilian ingredients, tastes and music.
Every town and city in Italy has its own Saintly patron or protector which has its own dedicated festa or celebration during the year with associated religious processions and events.
In Sicily alone, there are three hundred and ninety town halls which means many lifetimes of Saint day celebrations.
Apart from the religious celebrations, the locals take pride in celebrating the grandness of their particular Saints miracles and the intimate connection with their specific town. The statues of each Saint is a work of art, and the parades are filled with music, prayer and colour. The locals take their saints seriously and try to keep up the traditions.
Sicily’s nine major provincial capitals each have big celebrations which have been practised uninterrupted for centuries, and today each is a significant event in each cities calendar filled with holiday markets, art exhibitions, food preparations and epic fireworks.
Some towns have more than one Patron which means several celebrations throughout the year. While other cities whose Saints celebration happens in the dead of winter, so they have decided to have a summer version of the festa for visitors to experience too.
Here is a list of the important Patron Saint-day celebrations of the main cities in Sicily (Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse (Siracusa) and Trapani.
To round the number up to an even ten I’ve included an extra location at Cefalu where the festivities feature the Saint’s statue being loaded onto a boat, the procession continuing out into the sea, something which is common for many celebrations around the island particularly with coastal towns.
As a writer I’m eternally in love with words, I’m continually hoarding them trying to put them together in elegant poetical phrases, only to cut them out when editing, because simplicity works better.
The Italian language is in a constant state of change, every year new words are added to the vocabulary, as is usual in any living, used language. In 2016 the Zingarelli Italian dictionary listed and defined 500 new words, which brought the total to more than 144,000.
Some of these have been introduced from English, either translated into Italian or adopted in their original form into the dictionary, only to be pronounced in an Italianised way. Others express developments in technology others new ways of describing the current economic climate.
Of those words introduced to the Zingarelli, the new ones include acquaponica (hydroponics), adultità (the state of being an adult or adulting), banking, coding, cheating, bartender, criptomoneta (cryptocurrency), dipsofobia (the fixation of hoarding objects), fotodepilazione (UV hair removal), open toe, cooking show, svapare (vaping).
The words added from other languages included: expat, macaron, netsuke (small Japanese statues in wood or ivory), pastrami and to run flat.
Purists complain about every batch of new words added to the Italian language the lexicon is being watered down, desecrated or cancelled. But this is a normal function of a vibrant, growing and thriving language.
As a language is spoken, it changes and adapts to the contemporary situation. How many old words have been lost to English since Shakespeare’s time and yet his works maintain their relevance today because the core of the language is universal and timeless.
Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.
Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.
Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).
This intriguing tale has been interpreted many times, and the characters at its heart have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.
The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots in an attempt to recreate the bountiful fertility.
A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city is also featured in the religious procession.
The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina, after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.
Roger, I was a Norman nobleman he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.
In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery lead to the widespread belief that Sicily was founded by giants. The elephant skulls were also taken as proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skulls peculiar shape, and a typical single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.
Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods, the pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone who was the daughter of the goddess of nature Demeter and who was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife. There is a secure connection to many other pagan gods representing contrasting elements which coexist such as night and day, male and female and winter and summer.
The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman caught the eye of Grifone a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.
Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did and then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.
Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella an orphaned noble girl who is jealously guarded by her three brothers.
Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to put an end to the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and on their return home tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.
Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it. The plan blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.
In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotive moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore, for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.
Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers who treated her like an object.
The Romantic’s version is set in Florence, the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder occurs. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
Behind every work of art, there is always a story, Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy and loss.
The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the islands rich yet dark mythology.
Sitting on the bumpy, stony Sicilian beach I soak up the eccentric backdrop. This isn’t a beach; it is a rock mine, full of large pebbles, boulders and blocks of concrete dropped along the coast to create artificial barriers between the shoreline and the eroding sea. You can’t dive into the water without putting yourself in danger of serious concussion or spinal injuries, there are endless craggy boulders skulking under the water.
Walking down the beach my shoes begin to fill with pebbles. As I spread out my towel, my body is roughly fondled by the intruding stones. How I wish I could be cushioned by the sand and let my feet bury themselves under fine grains. Apart from a total lack of sand, there isn’t the convenience of a single shop or public toilet. It is harsh, rugged and rustic.
Watching beach umbrellas, pop up along the seaside, I begin to smear myself with sunscreen, as this is the standard procedure for people with milky coloured thighs left unexposed to the sun during winter. In Australia the sun is one danger of many to protect yourself from, an Australian doesn’t go to the beach without sunscreen nor do they go walking in long grass without boots or ever forget to check their shoes before they put them on to look out for poisonous spiders. Around me I see at least half a dozen women roasting themselves in the sun, I can smell barbecue meat.
Italian women take an enormous risk during the summer, turning themselves the colour of roast chicken. The tanned look is very fashionable and according to popular logic; the darker you look, the healthier you are. Obviously, they are in denial about the existence of skin cancer.
We’ve come down to the beach with a large collective group of in-laws, friends, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and their children. All the kids jump into the water without sunscreen. Here the sun doesn’t seem to be so harsh, you can easily stay out for a few hours and not burn to a crisp. I guess Italy is far away enough from the hole in the ozone layer to worry about the risk of melanoma.
All my female companions are in bikinis and I am in a full piece bathing costume complete with short pants to cover myself from the sun and hide my flabby stomach. It’s strange to see so many women in bikinis. I’ve always been self-conscience about exposing my body at the beach, I’ve never been part of that tall tanned beach going Ozzie set. I’ve never spent an entire summer at the beach, neither am I the athletic type.
These conservative Sicilian women, usually cover their bodies so carefully and fashionably during the year, yet in the summer they easily strip down without a second thought into the bare minimum of beach attire. They abandon themselves to the ideal bohemian fantasy of summer, without looking at themselves in the mirror.
Italians hold their right to a seaside holiday as dearly as their right to vote. It is a sacred privilege. Those who have left Sicily to work in the large industrial cities like Milan and Turin, return every summer for their obligatory beach time. Those who live in Sicily, who really don’t work very hard during the year, at least by European or Australian standards, relax and spend summers by the sea as rigorously as those who are fully deserving of a restful holiday.
Beach-going is extremely fashionable, as it was once a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and famous. Today everyone takes their little turn on the catwalk at the Italian seaside. Even on our own little-isolated strip of Sicilian coast, there are people who have convinced themselves the world is watching them in their seductively draped sarongs, strategically exposed tattoos, the latest shaped fashion sunglasses and the occasionally freshly styled hair and makeup. Everyone is ready to roast their abundance in the Siculu sunshine.
Trying to be social and fit into the beach going routine, I lie on a towel under one of the many beach umbrellas, as everyone strips down, I just want to dive into the water and have a swim but obviously, it’s not the done thing. First, we must sit and catch up with the goings on at the beach and the local gossip.
Not having any desire to participate I soak up the sun until a collective decision is made to play volleyball in the water to gradually dip ourselves into the sea. It becomes obvious no one is taking the game seriously, either that or I am the only one with any handball and swimming skills.
The gossip continues, the ball is bowled back up onto the beach as everyone sits in the shallow waves and continues to talk. I really don’t know about any of the people featured in the current conversation. I am excluded from the intricate web of social connections and nicknames so I cannot contribute anything to the gossip session and struggle to understand the shorthand speak being exchanged.
After a bit, I decide I’ve had enough and dive under the water swimming a few meters further out from the group. As I pull my head up they wave and whistle out to me, I wave back, realising they seem sincerely alarmed for my safety. I make my way back with a leisurely breaststroke to reassure everyone I’m fine and I just wanted to swim.
The others are surprised at how well I move in the water and everyone said they thought I’d drowned. A collective sigh of relief is made as I promise not to duck dive under the water or to swim out too far out into the calmest sea I have ever seen.
I smile to myself as I remember my childhood in Australia, every summer at the local pool had made me a good swimmer by Sicilian standards, yet in Australia, I always came dead last in any school swimming race.
Italians at the beach are dispersed in small chatty posed groups, roasting and gossiping in the sun, only the children are playing or swimming. Why would someone go to the beach and not swim?