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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
Images are taken from Unsplash.com, Canva.com and Wikipedia Media Commons.
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.
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.
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.
Right at its heart is the beautifully restored Cathedral and bell tower, which was nearly completely destroyed during the 1908 earthquake.
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)
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.
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:
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.
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?
Last year I was back home in Perth, Western Australia for a visit when I suddenly became a victim to reverse culture shock. It’s a bizarre affliction for an expat living in Italy as every day you are battling tiny little moments of friction between yourself and your new home, but slowly you begin to adjust and don’t think about the smaller things.
And apparently, you begin to assimilate the new behaviour into your personality.
Then when you go back to your hometown thinking, you will be able to settle in comfortably without thinking, when you realise how much you’ve forgotten.
Speaking mostly Italian, I find myself losing words and helpful phrases, sometimes my accent becomes a little Italianized without me realising.
I begin to miss the spontaneity of Italians, for organising things at the moment, I find it strange not just to turn up at friends homes only with a bottle of wine and whip up a bowl of pasta with a few simple ingredients; instead I have to make appointments to go out to eat with them in advanced.
I never order pasta at a restaurant in Australia as I’ve gradually become a pasta snob (yes there is such a thing). I will not eat over cooked pasta, it must be al dente.
And of my last visit home, I feel awkward at Australian coffee shops. Don’t get me wrong I still love, all-day breakfast and brunch is a dirty little pleasure I always indulge in whenever I’m in Australia, but it’s just I have a problem with the coffee.
I’ve become an avid espresso drinker in Italy. Every morning I have at least two cups of the thick black delicious liquid, I can’t get enough of it, I even will drink it without sugar to get the most of the bitter, full flavour.
I don’t crave thick creamy milk lattes, I can no longer stomach full cream milk cappuccinos or frappuccinos. Out with a friend for coffee, I accidentally ordered a latte instead of a flat white as I didn’t remember the difference and then felt terribly sick afterwards.
There are a lot of little Italian peccadillos, which I seem to have picked up without realising. I want my coffee in a cup, not a glass (it gets cold too quickly in a glass, and it tastes better in a cup), I want my cappuccino warm not boiling hot and I think people are strange to order a cappuccino in the afternoon (as it usually is a breakfast drink). I am yet to find a good espresso in Australia that does not taste bitter or burnt.
I like going to an Italian Caffe’, known as a Bar and having a quick, strong espresso while standing up, or grab a quick grappa if I’m feeling cold in the winter, or the ultimate ice coffee granita with whipped cream and brioche sweet bread in the summer.
I often wonder where on earth I will eventually feel more at home, in Australia or Italy. I’m currently debating whether I might need to create my own nation apart to accommodate my strange culture shock affliction.
For the record in Italy the coffee selection is usually as follows:
Cappuccino [cap-puc-cì-no] : equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk
Caffè latte [caf-fè] [làt-te]: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam
Latte macchiato [làt-te] [mac-chià-to]: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso
(These milky coffees are only consumed until about 11am)
Caffè macchiato [caf-fè] [mac-chià-to]: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as normal caffè.
Caffè corretto [caf-fè] [cor-rèt-to]: Literally translated as corrected coffee, this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.
Caffè americano [caf-fè] [a-me-ri-cà-no]: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.
Caffè lungo [caf-fè] [lùn-go]: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.
Marocchino [ma-roc-chì-no]: A marriage of cocoa and espresso. A shot of espresso, a layer of foam, and a sprinkle of cacao powder in a glass mug that has been dusted with cocoa powder.
Shakerato: The shakerato is Italy’s answer to an iced coffee. A chilled espresso poured over ice and shaken to a froth.
Caffè freddo [caf-fè] [fréd-do]: Literally cold coffee, an espresso which has been cooled down in the fridge or freezer.
Crema di Caffè [crè-ma] di [caf-fè]: A mixture of whipped cream and espresso coffee, a light coffee flavoured dessert.
Caffè affogato [caf-fè] [af-fo-gà-to]: Another variation of dessert, have your coffee literally drowned in a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream.
Granita di Caffè [gra-nì-ta] di [caf-fè]: Shaved iced coffee usually topped with whipped cream and consumed with sweet bread for breakfast in Sicily.
Bicerin [bitʃeˈriŋ]: A Piedmontese drink similar to a hot chocolate. Served in a big glass mixing coffee, chocolate and whipped cream.
Caffè al Ginseng [caf-fè] [gin-sèng] : An espresso prepared with ginseng extract and needs no other sweetener.
Caffè d’Orzo [caf-fè] [òr-zo]: A 100% naturally caffeine-free coffee made with barley.
It’s been a while since my last rant about the irksome parts of culture shock in Italy. To be honest, I’ve simply learned to adapt to most of the stuff I used to find bothersome, after all, you cannot pretend that an entire culture will change to fit your own convenience.
I take culture shock with a smile and try to put a comic slant on it. Most of the time I feel like David Attenborough in a BBC documentary, interacting with the natives while being fascinated, perplexed and amused at the same time.
To be honest, after 16 years of living in Italy, I often go through a strange kind of ‘reverse’ culture shock every time I’m back home in Australia (but that’s another story).
So here are ten points of culture shock which I still need to navigate and which sometimes bother me, make me laugh and others which aren’t too bad. The hilarious consequences of living in Italy instead of merely visiting.
1. A lack of personal space
In Australia like in America, we have way too much space compared to the population. Here in Italy, there are a lot of people with respect to the physical space. The result is tiny apartments and houses, not enough parking and a population which has no problem invading other people’s personal space.
You will be spoken to way too close to your face, people do stare, your new in-laws will be commenting on your appearance and interfering simply because we have to live our lives ‘vicini, vicini’, up close and personal, it’s just the way it is. Yes, it’s suffocating, oppressing and soul destroying but you’ll get used to it.
The in-laws will be doing it out of love, the community wants you to be a part of it, and strangers simply have always done this. Don’t feel like a victim no one is out to get you, it’s the reality.
2. An insane formality
Italians can be terrible intellectual snobs, they are very proud of their language, hard-earned titled, jobs, and education. So be prepared to be extremely formal when first meeting people, be sure to use the special ‘lei’ ultra formal grammatical way of addressing teachers, doctors, lawyers and people who are older or more experienced than you.
I was surprised to discover Italian society has an intellectual class system. There is a distinction between those who can speak Italian well, with a particular level of education or accent and those who can’t.
As a foreigner, you will always be corrected when you make grammatical errors or reminded of your quaint accent. Over the past few years, I’ve been working in the local schools in Sicily, and I’ve transformed from a foreigner to a formal colleague of other teachers, who happily address me with the title of ‘maestra’ or ‘collega’ and using ‘lei’ instead of the informal ‘tu’.
I think it’s hilarious the silly game many Italians are forced to play. We are all the same people, get over your airs and graces.
3. Male and Female dynamics
I’ve always been perplexed by the relationship between the sexes in Italy. I think women have a terrible struggle with sexism and bullying in Italy something which has never been acknowledged, for goodness sake, there isn’t even a word for sexism and harassment in Italian (eventhough the English terms are slowly being adopted.)
It has always bothered me how men and women in Italy cannot be considered merely friends, Italian’s have terms like fidanzato/a, amico/a which refer to boyfriend, girlfriend or fiancé, there is no term to express a platonic friendship, it’s sad, why can’t you just be friends without any sexual connotations or expectations?
While Italian men who are friends with other men seem to be a lot more intense, you will often see perfectly heterosexual men kissing one another on the cheeks, walking arm in arm, standing close to one another and embracing. If you saw this kind of male behaviour in any anglo saxon country, you would assume it was a gay couple. Not so in Italy.
Female friends are not so amicable, women are competing with other women, instead of lifting up one another, they are judging one another physically and playing the sexism game amongst themselves.
Even on a grammatical level, the Italian language drives me crazy as all objects are either male or female, it’s an epic task to recall which are which and how to make the definite and indefinite articles match up with the nouns. First, you need to identify the gender (masculine/feminine) then pay attention to the number (singular/plural) of the terms they refer to. It’s a daily struggle for me.
One of the things I noticed even on my very first visit to Italy is how dirty the place is, in the big cities it is dusty, people sweep their balconies out onto the street, laundry hung out to dry from balconies will drip on you as you walk by, you will accidentally step on abandoned dog poop and stumble upon dumped trash along the side of the road and under bridges (especially if there is some kind of labor strike occurring).
This is a massive social and environmental problem in Italy, which I hope Italians address soon. The concept of recycling is slowly being taught, and the use of plastic bags is banned by law. But there are large parts of Italy which have been permanently damaged by illegal dumping of toxic waste including areas outside of Naples, the sea floor near the island of Capri is in the middle of a major clean up and parts of Sicily’s interior near Gela and Caltanissetta have become terra bruciata– burnt out wasteland thanks to decades of a poorly managed petrochemical industry. All terribly heartbreaking.
5. Dolce Vita
Despite the negative aspects of culture shock, I love the pigheaded Italian approach to life. Their dedication to the Dolce Vita is what allows them to savour life to the full. Italy is all about slow living, taking the time to talk, socialise, taking care of themselves, enjoying a drink, a quick coffee, preparing good food, then taking the correct amount of time to taste and digest it all.
There is always plenty of holidays during the year to spend time with friends and family, as work is seen as a necessary evil and should not get in the way of living in the moment. Amen to making more memories and not more money.
6. Gossip mill 100%
When you come to Italy, you can be assured that someone will be talking about you. The Italian gossip mill is an outstanding machine, it connects everyone to everyone else professionally and personally. So why not use it to your advantage!
Let people know you can teach English, take good photos for a reasonable price, make birthday cakes, babysit. It’s the best way to get a job, honestly! And also how to find a good plumber, electrician, accountant or lawyer.
Make friends with the local gossip, just be careful not to make too many waves, just blend in. Complain about the same things as they do, agree with them but don’t add to the venom.
7. Coffee culture
Italy has the best coffee in the world, yet having coffee here is quite a rigid traditional ritual. In Italy coffee is exclusively a short black (espresso), cappuccino is strictly a morning drink served with full cream milk and not piping hot.
A latte will give you some milk with a dash of espresso, a macchiato will provide you with a short black with a splash of milk. Coffee is served quickly standing up at a ‘bar’ or cafe together with other drinks like juices, wine, spritz and bitter aperitifs.
If you are after something more substantial, you could sit down at a wonky table and grab a cornetto (croissant), pastries or a quick panino but don’t expect much else.
An Italian bar is a spot you nip off to for ten minutes at a time when you are at work or if you have nothing to do during the day.
Starbucks has only just opened its doors in Milan this year (2018), so there is no takeaway coffee, no small, medium or large frappe, no free wifi or working on a computer at the cafe’. Sniff!
8. Arrogant Doctors
Medical practitioners in Italy rarely have an excellent bedside manner, it seems that’s been left out of the pre-requisites. So be sure to revise how to use the formal ‘lei’ form while addressing them and write a list of questions to ask and insist on them being clear because they ain’t wasting time on explanations, unfortunately.
The poor public hospitals are the victims of terrible cutbacks and lousy management, so be kind to the doctors and nurses as they are very stressed, they are doing their best despite any rough edges.
9. The danger of ice
Since we are at the beginning of a long hot tourist inducing Italian summer I thought I’d mention the fear Italians have of consuming cold drinks with ice and avoiding air conditioning. Many visitors are always complaining of the lack of icy cold beverages and arctic blast air con. I totally understand this insanity as I grew up in Australia where people used to put their glasses in the freezer to get their beer extra chilled.
I feel a little embarrassed for my Italian friends and family when I explain their avoidance of cold things in summer to others, as they believe it is bad for your health. It seems Italians are slight hypochondriacs and avoid icy drinks (except for granita) and air conditioning as they fear it could make them sick or in some extreme cases kill.
My husband is always telling me the same story about a school friend of his who drank an icy cold drink one summer and consequently dropped dead as the difference in temperature sent his body into shock. If this story were true, then I surely would have died of brain freeze many years ago.
Now this may come as a surprise, but Italian bureaucracy has a gigantic problem with middle names. It is critical to consistently use all of your names on every possible documentation from bank accounts, I.D cards, passports, to bills, signatures and tax file numbers. You will be denied payments, get other people’s bills to pay and get perplexed looks from confused postal workers.
A signature is always written surname first then the first name followed by all middle names.
If you decide to abandon your middle names at the border as they are too confusing for Italians, then good for you as long as any other documents you use do not contain them as you will be forced to update everything if a middle name is discovered.
If you don’t have any middle names, lucky you!!
I’ve always had problems as my mother named me like a member of the British royal family with two middle names. In Australia, I always have to spell out my complex Italian surname as no one understood it or can pronounce it. So when I moved to Italy, I thought that’d be the end of that. But it turns out my pronunciation of Del Borrello to a Messinese sounds like I am saying Gian Borello, numerous times my name has been transformed and one of my consonants robbed.
It seems Sicilians only like local surnames and not ones from other Italian regions. Santa pazienza! So it looks like I will always have a struggle with my name.
If you want to read some more about my experience with culture shock take a look at: