10 things to keep in mind while planning a trip to Italy

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1) Don’t come in August

I’ve said this many times, you can visit throughout the year so don’t come in the most overcrowded, hot and humid part of the year when most Italians are on summer holidays it will be uncomfortable and you will never have an authentic experience.

September will be just as beautiful, autumn/fall will give you an excuse to taste the new wine, eat truffles and mushrooms and visit museums. Christmas and New Years are filled with traditions and delicacies. Easter and spring are perfect for the mild weather and religious festivities.

Just do your research, discover whatever your heart desires to experience on the peninsula, visiting archaeological sites in May will be so much better than in the heat of August. Museums are less crowded in the winter, food, music and religious festivals happen through the whole year. The best time to experience Italian culture in the theatres is actually in the middle of winter (Feb/March).

But then if you have your vacations in August and can’t get here any other time, then coming to Italy in August isn’t impossible it’s just hot and in holiday mode. Only try to stay cool by heading to the mountains or the beach and try to stay put during the week of Ferragosto (15th August) which is when the country has its main summer holiday, where you will find most places closed.

2) Avoid the trains in the South, unless …

Italy is perfect for slow travel, Italians are never in a hurry so you can take the time to savour a good meal, take a bus tour or the train. From Rome, upwards train journeys are fast, easy and affordable. But in the south things are not so easy, so unless you want to descend slowly into Dante’s Inferno with endless delays and cancelled trains so don’t do a long train journey. It’s easy to get a cheap flight down from Rome to Catania or Palermo and avoid the hassle.

Unless of course, you have time for a long-winded adventure. Once you are in Sicily, for example, feel free to take a shorter journey, day trips on the trains are fun, great for families, just be sure to take a packed lunch, water and give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination. Go around the Mount Etna volcano on the Circumetenea old railway, plan a trip from Palermo to Messina along the scenic coastline or check out the new  Treni Storici ( historic train journeys) a recent development by Treni Italia which have been designed to offer their passengers to stop at Sicilian wineries and other towns where excellent food is produced and to see the main sites. (link is in Italian)

3) Get out of the major cities

There is nothing wrong for first-time visitors to visit the major Italian capitals, but try to make it into smaller towns too. Italy is such a vibrant place to explore, hire a car and go track down a food festival or a well-known church, museum or villa you once read about in a magazine.

Yes, Tuscany is Florence, but it is also Lucca, Siena, Vinci, San Gimignano and another two hundred and seventy-six Tuscan towns to explore, each with their own food, traditions, history and festivals.

Why not pick another region to visit like Emilia Romagna in the north with cities like Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara, Forlì and Rimini.

In the region of Piemonte, there is Turin, Cuneo, Asti, Alessandria, Vercelli, Novara, Biella or Verbano.

In the south dive into Puglia with towns like Bari, Foggia, Lecce, Taranto, Brindisi and Barletta.

Calabria is filled with possibilities and much fewer tourists in the seaside towns like Tropea, Isca Marina or Reggio which is connected to Messina by ferry and is a perfect gateway into Sicily.

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4) Be brave, hire a car

People are a little hesitant to drive in Italy, but if you get a chance to hire a car, it is worth the challenge and expense.

Driving around Italy will give you an opportunity to be autonomous, travel and stop where you like, and it allows you to get a sense of the landscape and geography of the place.

Yes, you will see some reckless drivers speeding past you, be frustrated by a lack of parking and autostrada fees but if you go off the beaten track, you can avoid many of these problems.

5) Learn a little Italian or at least get a guidebook

There is no need to be a fluent Italian speaker, but your visit will be so much better if you put in the effort to understand Italian culture, history and language. There are many great guidebooks which will give you an excellent general introduction and help you to do necessary things like ask directions or say please and thank you.

6) See something authentic

Please stay away from tourist traps, in Italy there is so much more than pizza and pasta. Go to eat at a Trattoria (family-run restaurant) where you will be treated to a good home cooked meal. Go to a Sagra (a local food festival), which happen all the time and give you a chance to taste local delicacies for a handful of Euros.
Experience local markets, there are always open-air markets, some are dedicated to food, others to flowers and many sell arts and crafts or antiques, even if you don’t buy anything it is a unique experience.
See a patron Saint celebration, every town has a Saintly protector celebrated during the year with their own local holiday, filled with markets, religious processions, fireworks, sagras, brass bands, free concerts, art exhibitions and also usually specially prepared dishes or sweets dedicated to each particular saint.
Every town will have its own local speciality, a particular type of pasta, wine, dessert, seafood dish, cheese, bread or domestic seasonal product. Taste it all!

7) Don’t be in a hurry

Italian’s are never in a rush, they are always fashionably late, they take their time to talk, taste and savour life. When you are visiting their country, try to leave space for the unexpected.

Slow food and travel make their home in Italy which gathers experiences rather than ticking off names on a bucket list.

8) Dive into the history and culture there’s plenty of it

Not even Italians are fully aware of all the history surrounding them, but if you want to appreciate this country, you should know a little.

In Sicily alone, there have been thirteen different invaders who have ruled over the island which has been inhabited since prehistory. Each invading culture has left behind distinct monuments and cultural footprints all over the island. From the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals/Goths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normas, Swedish, French, Spanish, Albanian, Austrians and English.

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9) Taste as many local delicacies as possible

I know I keep mentioning food, but the Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthy and variegated cuisines around. Food is like a religion in Italy, if it isn’t fresh, delish and straightforward Italians won’t eat it.

From something simple like street food to a delicate gelato, fresh off the boat seafood, pizza sold by the metre or the best short black coffee you will ever drink, your taste buds will never forget the flavours of Italy.

10 ) Take home as much made in Italy as will fit in your luggage

There are many Italian artisans, small businesses and ancient crafts that exist only in Italy, help keep them alive by buying a good quality gift from Italy.

There is everything from ceramics, jewellery, wine, olive oil, pasta, biscuits, paintings, sculptures, stationery, leather goods, gold work, textiles, coral, silverwork, and fashion. You will come across endless things to treasure and bring home.

Stay away from cheap and nasty Chinese stuff at markets, buy directly from small established boutiques for guaranteed quality, you might pay more, but it will be worth it.
Be sure to check if you can bring in certain foodstuffs through the customs laws in your own country.

For example, in Australia, you can bring in anything that is cooked (i.e., cakes and biscuits) or sealed adequately like olive oil for individual consumption. But you will need to declare anything made out of wood or fresh foodstuffs to be inspected and possibly thrown out (things like cheeses, salami and Nutella will not be allowed to enter the country, unfortunately). If in doubt simply declare it when you arrive and in the worst case scenario it will be taken away from you but if you get to keep it, bonus points for you!

Sicilian Splendors: discovering the secret places that speak to the heart

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Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

 

I discovered the work of John Keahey by accident a few years ago when his first book about Sicily (Seeking Sicily: a cultural journey through myth and reality in the heart of the Mediterranean) randomly popped up on my Amazon search for books on my usual trawl through the internet for inspiration.
After a quick, effortless click, John Keahey’s book was instantly on my e-reader. This turned out to be a beautiful discovery, and to my delight I soon found this book to be only the last in a succession of many dedicated to Italy.

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It was apparent I’d review it for Sicily Inside and Out and I definitely wanted to do an interview as I had with other excellent authors who have been inspired by Sicily and in turn become an inspiration to me.
John Keahey is a retired American journalist who has gradually fallen more and more deeply in love with Sicily through the years ever since his first visit in 1986.
I sent an email to Keahey’s publisher, but I didn’t get an immediate response and then found him on Facebook and messaged him. He said yes, to my surprise and I emailed him some questions. Here is the original article about his first Sicilian themed travel book Seeking Sicily.

 

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After that, we became virtual acquaintances on Facebook, his comments, likes and questions about my Sicilian posts and on the struggles I’ve had writing my first book have become most welcomed. I like to think we are friends, even though we haven’t met in person just yet, we still encourage one another through our shared love of writing and this complex Mediterranean island.

When he said he was working on a new book about small Sicilian villages, my heart skipped a beat at the prospect of yet another excellent book about Sicily and I’m happy to report it is now available.

This time I preordered on Amazon and on the day of its release Sicilian Splendors: discovering the secret places that speak to the heart magically appeared, automatically downloaded onto my e-reader.

 

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What makes John Keahey’s approach to Sicily so special is his dedication to slow travel. He explores a place through its history, people, food, landscape and in turn crafts his own personal story which is a pleasure to read.

John is an exceptional traveller and writer, not a simple tourist blindly ticking things off a senseless status driven bucket list he is drawn to a place through his own personal interests and he then lets chance and his ability to connect with people around him to guide him.

In short, Keahey is exploring Sicily precisely as it should be, driving by car to small non-touristy places, making contact with the locals, pulling out threads of history, literature, culture and current events that intrigue him and then following them back to their original source. His journalistic approach is refreshing and offers up many fascinating insights.

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It is a pleasure to see Sicily through John’s eyes as he is always so open to the world around him, he sits with the pensioners in the piazza, knocks back double espressos and cornetti like a local, puffs on Italian cigars, savours every meal and tries to understand Sicily more and more deeply with every visit.

He’s never in a hurry, always stops to ask polite questions and is opened to the art of spontaneity and surprise which never disappoints. Sicily is definitely a place which offers its best when visitors give themselves space to be creative. It is difficult to plan anything in Sicily as things tend to develop organically and randomly.

Whenever he visits Sicily, he tries to live it from a locals perspective, and the result is a wonderfully personal travelogue which reflects the true nature of Sicily. It is always a pleasure to travel with John Keahey, he makes is wonderful company and his passion is contagious.

 

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I hope to meet John Keahley on his next visit to Sicily and finally offer him a double espresso and cornetto while secretly hoping to get a Sicilian themed trilogy from him.

I was even surprised to see my name in the acknowledgements at the end of Sicilian Splendors, which is undeniably kind and I thank him very much.

The new book Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places that Speak to the Heart has just been released this November (2018) and is available on Amazon (also in audio book format).

Seeking Sicily is still available on  Amazon.

Yuletide Sicily

The festive season is always a beautiful time of the year to visit Sicily as it is filled with the colours, tastes and sensations of a traditional Sicilian Christmas.

A Yuletide Sicily offers visitors a unique way of experiencing the island which is inhabited by fewer tourists and is ultimately a more authentically Italian celebration.
December in Sicily is about traditions based around the nativity, Christmas markets with a little decadence thrown in.

Winter on the island over the past few years has been rather pleasant, apart from the chilly weather, a definite chill in the air, some rain it is quite rare to see snow be deposited around most of the island, apart from of the higher parts and the snowfields of the Madonie Mountains and Etna’s favourite skiing tracks.

The focus of December is as always about the food and traditions, the advent calendar is filled with roasted chestnuts in the squares, folk concerts around churches, food festivals dedicated to things like fried dumplings and other sweets. Wine is always featured in winter feats, and roasted pork is the featured meat dish.

As Christmas gets closer there impromptu folk music performances featuring traditional instruments like the Sicilian bagpipe or zampogna. Religious art is always a firm part of the Christmas season with exhibitions of detailed dioramas of the Nativity in Papier Mache, or even live reenactments of the nativity tale from the Bible.

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Every major city has its own traditional characteristic Christmas markets filled with folk art, Christmas decorations and food and wine stands which are also common in other European cities.

In Sicily, the religious festivals are as always a substantial part of the events and include everything from the feast days of St Barbara, the Immaculate Conception, San Nicola di Bari, St Lucy, Santo Natale, San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) through to and the Epiphany in early January.

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Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

The festive table is always filled with baroque bounties where the best of what is available is consumed liberally throughout Sicily.

Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy, but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s. Yes, the most important meals are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for an entire year.

The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony.

A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetisers like bruschetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats. Then a selection of at least two different pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fusilli prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavoured with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menu varies depending on which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigilia must be celebrated only with seafood.

A typical menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccalà or dried and salted cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.

 

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Photo by Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelised fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like drenched liquor dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!
Finally, there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.

For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.

The Cenone is sacred, and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!

The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.

Here below is my own personal list of events in Sicily this December (2018) for you to pin and use as a guide on your Yuletide planning.

Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.

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Yuletide Sicily

Rebuilding Messina

 

The most powerful recorded earthquake to hit Europe struck Messina at about 5:20 AM local time. Its epicentre was under the Strait of Messina, which separates the island of Sicily from the province of Calabria, the “toe” of Italy’s geographical “boot.” The main shock lasted for more than 20 seconds, and its magnitude reached 7.5 on the Richter scale.
Ten minutes later a tsunami brought waves estimated to be 13 metres high crashing down on the coasts of northern Sicily and southern Calabria. More than 80,000 people were killed in the disaster. Many of the survivors were relocated to other Italian cities; others immigrated to the United States.

Experts long surmised that the tsunami resulted from seafloor displacement caused by the earthquake. However, research completed in the early 21st century suggests that an underwater landslide, unrelated to the quake, triggered the tsunami.

The Messina shoreline was irrevocably altered as large sections of the coast sunk into the sea. Houses, churches, palaces and monuments, military barracks: commercial, municipal and public buildings had all collapsed entirely or were severely damaged. Many structures were cracked shells, roofless, windowless and standing upright precariously.

Initially, authorities adopted a plan to demolish the remaining structures of Messina and transfer the city and its port elsewhere in Sicily, but this was discarded after loud protests from the Messinesi.

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The area around where today’s Cairoli square is at Messina was at the centre of the city’s rebirth after the 1908 disaster. Piazza Cairoli became the ground zero of the new town and was the main area where temporary housing was built for the newly homeless of Messina.

The square was a makeshift area made up of a tent hospital, premade wooden houses donated by countries like Switzerland, Russia and the United States, a printer and a chapel.

In the reconstruction of the city, many of Messina’s historic Palazzi was too severely damaged to be fixed and were merely knocked down while some more modern buildings built later in the fascist period were irrationally demolished to make way for modern apartment buildings in a rush to make profits. Beautiful buildings from the 1930’s like Cinema Trincaria and Cinema Teatro Peloro Anni (pictured above)  were unfortunately sacrificed for Messina’s need for public housing.

Piazza Cairoli is dedicated to the Cairoli brothers, two heroes from the period of the Italian unification. Today it is a green, fresh piece of garden in the centre of the city, divided in two by the tram lines and the main streets of the town Via Garibaldi and Viale S. Martino.

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Today there is no reference to the disaster whatsoever in the open space, it is simply a beautiful square popular with the locals because of its proximity to the best shopping in the city.

Around the piazza there are many bars, gelaterias and restaurants, hile along the furthest part of the piazza, the most well known Italian fashion brands have their stores, which makes this area the high-end shopping district of the city.

It is a beautiful part of the city and is the focus of events throughout the year, from street food festivals to the quaint Christmas markets every year. It’s lovely on a Sunday for a quick coffee or an ice cream.

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During the week you will see many families stroll around the square with their children, or take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot day and catch the tram to different parts of the city. It is also where the local MacDonalds is located so there will often be groups of teenagers slurping soft drinks. While others use it as a meeting spot before or after their shopping sprees.

The memory of the time when Messina was practically erased from existence seems to have been forgotten as this thriving modern, cosmopolitan city busily goes about its daily business.

The Normans in Messina

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The Chiesa di San Tommaso Apostolo il Vecchio is a precious artefact of the Norman period of Sicily. It dates back between 1061 and 1109 under the reign of Count Roger the first, a French Catholic ruler whose crusading knights left for the Middle East from the port of Messina.

For many years it was known as the church of the Concezione delle Vergini Riparate until it was given the name of San Tommaso Apostolo from 1530.

It is a fantastic example of Norman Arab architecture, which borrowed the dome structure of the Mosque and placed within the very stoic, classic lines of the Norman style.

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Walking past the tiny church right in the centre of Messina fills the imagination with images from of Sicilian history, you can almost see the crusaders ending their prayers and galloping onwards to the port and then the holy land.

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Sicilian churches and cathedrals simply take my breathe away, the mixture of extravagant styles from baroque, Norman, Gothic, Romanesque, Catalanian and many more. Together with the tremendous artistry of marble work, sculptures, woodwork and small details unique to this part of the world which easily mixes so many cultures in its complex history.

The Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani in Messina a most unexpected church to visit. It is literally only a short walk away from the Cathedral at Messina and is easily missed as its entrance is located under street level hidden down a flight of stairs it is often closed but if you are lucky to sneak inside you will see one of the best examples of Norman architecture on Sicily.

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The church dates from the 12th century, built on top of the ruins of an older temple dedicated to Neptune, the church is a beautiful mix of different cultural elements. The church displays influences from Arab and Byzantine architecture and also contains Roman elements.

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The central apse is well-preserved with small intricate bricks which form an archway around a beautiful dark-skinned Christ on a crucifix at its centre. The church is popularly used for local weddings, and if you are lucky to see it decorated for such an event, it is truly spectacular.

The name of the church comes from merchants from Catalonia who established a presence in Messina in the 16th century.

A newly restored treasure of Sicilian Art Nouveau

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The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III at Messina was built from 1924 to 1929 by architect Camillo Puglisi Allegra who was inspired by the ornate seventeenth-century Sicilian baroque style which dominates the island, particularly in the Val di Noto area of South Eastern Sicily.

The beautiful Galleria has recently been reopened after many decades of abandonment, and in the evening it becomes a swirling buzz of cafes, bars, pizzerias, restaurants and fast food joints.

But visiting it in the early morning sunlight you really get a sense of the scale, colours and almost religious understanding of this elegant Liberty style structure, so characteristic of the eclectic post-1908 style of Messina.

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The Galleria is located on via Cavour and is part of a small cluster of important public buildings who circle the Piazza Antonello square at the entrance to the Galleria.

The circle around the piazza includes the main Post Office of Messina which was designed by architect Vittorio Mariani, il Palazzo della Provincia (or provincial government) built by Alessandro Giunta and the very grand Palazzo del Municipio (town hall of Messina) which is a work of the celebrated architect Antonio Zanca.

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In the morning the Galleria is like a stain-glass filled church, the sunshine streams in and there is a peaceful silence which allows you to take in the scope of the place and all of the decorative details.

The balconies which look out from the first floor onto the mosaic details on the expansive floor, the marble details, archways and domed ceilings are simply elegant. The balance of the simple classical elements gives the Galleria a real sense of style without being ostentatious.

It is light filled, breezy, with a wonderful well rounded sounding acoustics which I think would be perfect for chamber music, opera, choral music and other such refined performances which often find it difficult to find a performance space outside of the theatre.

And who would not pay good money to stay in an apartment or B&B directly over such a picturesque place?

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The Galleria seems to be empty, making it a home for Messina’s Burger King is a waste. The large elegant space has the potential to a focus of ongoing events and vibrant economic activities. If marketing is done the right way this venue could be the focal point of cafes, markets, local brands, offices and many other sources of entertainment.

Rather than lying half asleep in the late morning it should be bustling with people. The Galleria deserves to be filled with families, locals and tourists visiting and marvelling over this beautiful attraction, similar to other Galleria’s at Naples and Milan.

Sicily in November

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The first and second of November in Sicily are sombre, holy and sad days dedicated to Saints and dead souls. A month of meteorological transition, which has been causing havoc all over Italy this year (2018) with extensive flooding in Veneto and Alto Adige.
In the south, there is a flux between the hot scirocco winds from Africa which whips up wind storms and slowly is pushed aside by the cool Baltic stream.
Every year the days are always uneasy, with hot allergy-inducing sandy winds in the day, followed by cooler longer nights and then days of rain before gradually settling down into a routine of winter-like chill.

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The garden and the plate are also transforming as tomatoes and aubergines are replaced with mushrooms and pumpkins.
As the vegetable garden prepares for winter greens in the planting of fennel, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, peas, beans, spinach and other leafy greens.
We welcome the persimmons and pomegranate together with our friends the walnut and chestnut.

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With the feast day of San Martino on the eleventh of November where the pressed grapes of October are miraculously transformed into ‘vino novello.’
French Saint Martin was the third bishop of Tours and is one of the most familiar and recognisable Christian saints in the Western tradition.
When Martin of Tours was a soldier in the Roman army and stationed in Gaul (modern-day France). As he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a scantily clad beggar. Martin thought to cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak he had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”

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El Greco – San Martín y el mendigo

In another version of the famous story, Martin woke to find his cloak restored to its original state. The dream confirmed Martin’s mission in life, he was baptised at the age of 18 and then became a religious minister.

St Martin’s shrine in Tours became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. His cult was revived in the French nationalism of the Franco-Prussian war of the late nineteenth century and as a consequence became the patron saint of France.

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In Sicily, San Martino gives us his ‘summer’ of Saint Martin, a blessed week of fine weather and sunshine before winter sets in. A perfect moment to taste the year’s new wine and drink a toast to the patron saint of soldiers, conscientious objectors, tailors and vintners.

 

In fact, the feast of Saint Martin features heavily in the events calendar of Sicily this month. Here is another list of suggestions to pin later for anyone visiting the island this month.
(Events may vary from year to year, this information is valid for November 2018.)

 

Nov in Sicily

 

Images are taken from Unsplash.com, Canva.com and Wikipedia Media Commons.

The historical heart of Messina

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Piazza Duomo at the heart of Messina’s historic centre and is the focus of the city’s social and cultural life.

 

A few minutes walk from the port, train station, post office, university and shopping districts the piazza is wonderfully positioned.

 

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Lined with gracious palazzi, cute bars, restaurants and shady trees it is a beautiful spot to the side and soak up the sunshine, even in the middle of winter.

 

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Apart from the occasional busload of tourists or cruise liner passengers who stop to see the clockwork bell tower go through its midday chiming routine, the piazza is a tranquil place to visit.

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Right at its heart is the beautifully restored Cathedral and bell tower, which was nearly completely destroyed during the 1908 earthquake.

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Today it stands miraculously restored to its former greatness and is a must visit place filled with ornamentation marble sculptures and artful details. It is a beautiful church to wander through at any time of the year.

Downstairs there is a permanent exhibition of the Duomo’s treasures filled with golden ecclesiastical objects and beautiful donations given to the Madonna of Messina in thanks for the many miracles she has granted to the city.

The bell tower houses the largest and most complex piece of intricate clockwork in the world. Constructed in Strasberg, the sixty-meter tall campanile is made up of an impressive astronomical clock and a collection of gold-coated bronze statues which acts out seven different scenes symbolic of Messina’s history. (Clockwork Messina)

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The beautifully restored Cathedral at Messina is made even more spectacular simply because it was nearly completely destroyed during the 1908 earthquake. Today it stands miraculously restored to its former greatness and is a must-see place lovingly rebuilt by the locals. One could only imagine how beautiful the original church might have been.

 

Messina’s Madonna

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Messina has a special connection to its Parton the Virgin Mary. Not only does she welcome the ships into the port with her giant golden statue at the entrance of the naturally formed inlet. She has many churched dedicated to her, and her image is at the centre of the city’s immense faith and religious celebrations.

On the third of June, a procession is dedicated to the Sacred Hair of Mary, a single strand of hair which according to the myth was tied around the letter sent to the city. The scroll is part of a procession around the town for the Madonna della Lettera.

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For the mid-August holidays, a float is constructed in her honour at Messina. The Vara, an elaborate cart depicts the biblical structure of the universe from the earth up to the heavens completed with a hierarchy of angels ending with the image of Christ who supports his mother in the palm of his hand raising her into the sky as she ascends body and soul into heaven.

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The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes while 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.

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The Quattro Fontane (four fountains) once dominated the corners of the two main streets of the city in pre-1908 Messina between Via Austria (now via I Settembre) and Via Cardines. The decorative fountain heads were constructed between 1666 and 1742.

The immense structures were symbolic of the city’s beauty and aesthetics before the disaster hit. Palermo’s surviving Quattro Canti mimic the style and grandeur of what Messina’s four fountains may have been.

The first fountain was designed by Florentine architect I. Mangani while later in 1717 the second was made by a local sculpture Ignazio Buceta. While the final two were completed in 1742 by unknown artists.

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Damaged significantly in the 1908 earthquake the two remaining fountains have been reassembled in the surviving stretch of Via Cardines, while fragments of the other fountains in this series are preserved in the Regional Museum of Messina together with many artefacts left behind in the aftermath of the destruction of the city.
The details in the two reconstructed fountain heads recall the influence of the Tuscan and Roman style which was popular in the seventeenth century. The elaborate decorative heads and features remember elements of mythology and the artistry behind their designs is obvious.

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Even if only a little part of these fountains survived, it is certain they were terrific to witness when they first became a part of the city of Messina.

Walking around Messina

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Unexpected travels in Italy

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

 

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.

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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.

 

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Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

 

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.

 

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Photo by La So on Unsplash

 

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:

The one time I went to Etnaland 

The stone garden of Noto

On the road to Syracuse

 

Thanks so much to Kelly from italianatheart.com, Jasmine from questadolcevita.com and Kristie of mammaprada.com for suggesting such a wonderful subject.

If you are a blogger or creator of an Italian themed channel please feel free to join us every 7th of the month for our Dolce Vita Bloggers topics, we’d love to hear from you.

This is part of the #DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #11 October 2018 – Hilarious Travel Mishaps

Past #DolceVitaBlogger Link-Ups:
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #10 September 2018 – Favourite Italian Recipe
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #9 August 2018 – Culture Shock
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #8 July 2018 – La Dolce Vita
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #7 June 2018 – Hidden Gems in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #6 May 2018 – Five Italian Words
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #5 April 2018 – The Perfect Day in Italy
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #4 March 2018 – International Women’s Day
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #3 February 2018 – A Love Letter to Italy
#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #2 January 2018 – Favourite Italian City
​#DolceVitaBloggers Linkup – #1 December 2017 – ‘The Italian Connection

 

 

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For more on how to join in on the fun click here.

Italian word of the day: Mangiare

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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

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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.

Ottobre in Sicilia

'Falling' in love with Sicily

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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A bunch of ways to eat in Italy

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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.

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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.

The Ultimate Sicilian History Lover

 

History

John Julius Norwich:

The Normans in the South 1016-1130

The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194.

Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean.
John Julius Norwich

 

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.

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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.

All of John Julius Norwich’s books are available from the Book Depository.