The inspiration of Sicily

English Novels and Novellas

Sicily is a perfect place for lovers of historical novels, it is such an evocative place, bursting with the energy of a palpable history which seeps into everything on the island.

In fact, Sicily has inspired many English authors to write beautiful fiction.
The Sicilian migrant diaspora is also one of the most creative spawning a genre which draws from Sicilian culture, family history and the collective migrant experience.

First, second and even sometimes third generation Sicilian writers have been inspired by their heritage and continue to create beautiful literary works dedicated to Sicily.

One of my favourite novellas inspired by a person who has explored his own personal history in Sicily is The Lady of the Wheel by Angelo F. Coniglio.

The Lady of the Wheel is a journey into the poverty, misery and dignity of the insular world of the Nineteenth-Century Sicilian peasantry. This labour of love is passionate and detailed and takes us deep into a Verismo like the realistic world of small village life with heartfelt pathos and a veil of ancient dialect.

Maria Rizzo is left alone to birth and give up her fifth child. Hiding the pregnancy from the community, in the heart of a harsh Sicilian winter, Maria dresses her beautiful green-eyed baby girl in the only fine clothes the family owns, a dolls dress and goes to the church to deposit the child in a special rotating door, designed to gather up foundlings for adoption by the church. We follow Maria and her daughter on their journey to find one another.

Coniglio’s novella is a beautifully sparse and well-crafted story which takes us into the poverty of one of the darkest times in Sicily’s modern history. The story of these abandoned children from the island’s history is filled with pathos and power.

Angelo F. Coniglio

I interviewed Angelo Coniglio a while ago about the background to this story and his unique passion for Sicilian genealogy which lead him to discover this story from his own personal family history.

Tell us about your book The Lady of the Wheel, where did you find this amazing, evocative story and how is it connected to you?

I have been doing Sicilian genealogical research for about ten years.  I started with the ancestors of my parents, both of whom were born in Serradifalco in central Sicily.   Then I began doing research for my friends, many of whom are also Sicilian American.  Some of my ‘friends’, my research showed, were actually distant cousins.  One had ancestors from Racalmuto, a village in Agrigento province.  One record that I found had nothing to do with his ancestry, but it caught my eye.  All births were recorded, even stillbirths and the births of abandoned children, who were left in the public ‘ruota’ or foundling wheel.  Since the parents of foundlings were unknown, the infants’ names were concocted by church or civil authorities.  Their made-up surnames were stigmatic: ‘Proietto’, (which means ‘cast out’); ‘Trovatello’ (‘foundling’); ‘Esposto'(‘exposed to the elements’) and so on.

In the 1800s in Sicily (and in much of Europe), each new birth had to be registered with civil authorities.  Usually, the infant’s father took it to the town hall to be registered, but in the case of foundlings, they were presented for registration by the person, usually a woman, who had found them.  The occupation of these women was variously given as ‘custode dei trovatelli’ (caretaker of foundlings), or ‘ricevitrice dei proietti'(receiver of castoffs).  In the particular foundling record that caught my eye the occupation of the declarant was given simply as ‘ruotaia’.  This is a word that is no longer used in modern Italian, but ‘ruota’ meant ‘foundling wheel’, and ‘ruotaia’ meant ‘woman who tends the foundling wheel’.

What further piqued my interest was that the name of the wheel-tender was given as Rosa Esposto, meaning that the ‘lady of the wheel’ most likely had been a foundling herself.  My story grew from there.

Sicily has so much fascinating history, how did you settle on this particular early modern period, the plight of the poor class and the role of the church? Tell us a little bit more about this dark phase in Sicily’s history.

My parents were born in the 1800s, so my search for their birth records and the birth records of my friends’ parents naturally led me to examine records from that period.  Over the years I have read much about the plight of families from the Southern Apennine peninsula and Sicily, after their homeland was subsumed into the Kingdom of Italy.  The poor in that region only got poorer and their youth were conscripted into the Italian army to fight northern wars.  Those factors led to the huge migration to the US and elsewhere.  80% of ‘Italian’ immigrants to America were from the South and from Sicily.

How did you manage to balance the history with the fictional elements in The Lady of the Wheel?

I guess the history came from my analytical side (I’m a retired civil engineer and educator), and the ‘fictional’ elements are a blend of facts found in my research of original Sicilian records, along with family stories that I remember.

 

What’s your own personal link to Sicily, tell us about Serradifalco, how are you connected?

Serradifalco is a small interior town whose main industry was once sulfur mining.  My uncle Giuseppe Coniglio came from there to Robertsdale, Pennsylvania in 1912.  He was an out-of-work sulfur miner and found work here as a coal miner.  He had left behind his wife Angela Alessi, sister of my mother Rosa Alessi, who was married to my father Gaetano Coniglio, Giuseppe’s youngest brother.  Get it? Two brothers married two sisters, not uncommon at all in small Sicilian towns.

In 1913, my uncle convinced my father to be the chaperone for my aunt Angela when she came to the US, so my father did so, temporarily leaving my mother (pregnant with my eldest brother) in Sicily.  My brother Guy was born in late 1913, and a year later my mother and he joined my father in Robertsdale.

Both sides of my wife’s family also sprang from Sicily, so the two of us are 100% Sicilian.

 

Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favourite Sicilian memory and experience?

I visited there in 2006 with my wife, two sisters and several nieces, and again in 2009 with my sisters and nieces.  My wife and I and two nieces are returned again in late May 2016.

My favourite memory is the warmth and friendliness of the Sicilians of small-town Sicily.  Whether they were my relatives plying us with home-grown food or strangers breaking their schedules to take us to see a local sight, they made us feel welcome.

 

I hear you are planning to write another book set in Sicily, tell us about that.

The Lady of the Wheel is a short book that practically wrote itself.  Though it’s set in Racalmuto, there are references to my ancestral village of Serradifalco.  ‘Serradifalco’ means ‘mountain of the hawk’, and I’m working on a fictional history of the town, from before Roman colonization through the recent past.  The title of that book will be ‘The mountain of the Hawk’.  Needless to say, it’s a much more daunting undertaking, a Michener-like challenge.  I am also considering putting together a book, tentatively titled ‘Discovering Your Sicilian Ancestors’, a compilation of newspaper and blog articles I have written on that subject.  Sicily and the former Sicilian territories of Southern Italy have some of the best records in the world, with civil records of birth, marriage and death dating back to the early 1800s, and church sacramental records, sometimes back to the 1300s.

 

You are also an academic with a passion for Sicilian genealogy tell us a little about your professional life and your research in Sicily

I was an academic; an adjunct professor of civil engineering at the University of Buffalo, and a practising civil engineer.  I’m retired from both, and I guess I’d be classified as an ‘amateur’ genealogist since I prefer not to charge for my services, but rather to help others to do their own research.  My Sicilian research actually has mostly been done from afar, using online services and microfilms rented at my local Mormon Family History Center, where I’m a volunteer.  I have done some on-site research in Sicily, viewing some hundred-plus-year-old registers in my own ancestral town and that of my wife.

 

I always get asked by my blog readers how to go about researching family trees in Sicily, you seem to be an expert, how does one go about it?

Before starting, google-search for, and purchase, one of many books available on Italian genealogy.  They can help you understand original Sicilian records, which are in the Italian language.

a. Review family records and local (church, library, court) records to get your immigrant ancestor’s NAME as it was in Sicily, and at least their approximate BIRTH DATE.  US Censuses are available at libraries and online and can have such information, as well as their early RESIDENCE in the US, and their IMMIGRATION DATE.

b. Ditto for your ancestor’s TOWN OF BIRTH.  This is important because the records must be searched according to the town in which they were created.  Knowing ‘they were born in Sicily’ is not enough.  Passenger manifests, available online can give an immigrant’s last residence or place of birth.  Remember that married or not, Sicilian women went by their birth surnames and would be so listed on manifests.  Citizenship papers (Petitions for Naturalization) can have all of this information.

c. Unless you can afford to travel to your ancestral town or pay someone to do so, you can search for records with the help of the Mormon site familysearch.org   Records for your town may be available online or on microfilm that can be viewed at your local Mormon Family History Center.  There is no proselytizing at these centres, and their services are free for all patrons.

d. Starting with a recent ancestor you know something about; find his/her birth, marriage, and/or death records.  Sicilian records are very detailed and give age, occupation and addresses of persons involved in a civil registration.  Use that information to search for records of earlier ancestors, and continue back in time to build your family tree.

You regularly contribute to Italian/Sicilian American publications about Sicilian heritage, tell us about some of your articles, why do you think it is so important to maintain links to Sicily?

I’m a sucker for ‘heritage’.  Regardless of our ethnicity, I feel we should ‘know our roots’.  Our ancestors, and the things that shaped their lives, actually helped form our lives, and knowing them is knowing ourselves.  I have friends who have visited Italy, and when I ask where they went, they say “Rome, Florence and Venice.”  I ask where their families were from and they reply “Racalmuto, Messina, Agrigento.”   Then why didn’t they visit Sicily?  “We didn’t think there was anything to see there.”  To travel that far and not visit the actual land of your fathers, is, I believe, a travesty.

Tell me do you think that Sicilian migrant voices/writers are important, why?

Sicily and Sicilians have been WRONGLY painted harshly because of the sensationalism of one small aspect of our society.  I’m saddened by the glorification of criminals, and would much rather see Sicilians and descendants of Sicilians display the intelligence and passion that made Sicily a cultural gem.

Sicily has produced so many fine writers, would you like to share which literary voice speaks to you the loudest and why who would you recommend to read to get a sense of Sicily.

Although my work has been compared to that of Verga, I had not read him prior to writing my novella.  Now, doing so, I see how he captured the sometimes tragic but always ‘bravu’ character of ordinary Sicilians, and I am diving into his works.

Theresa Maggio’s ‘Mattanza’ is spellbinding, and her ‘The Stone Boudoir’ captures the essence of small Sicilian mountain towns.  Lampedusa’s ‘Il Gattopardo’ and Anthony Di Renzo’s ‘Trinacria’ tell of the upheaval of Sicilian society after the ‘risorgimento’.  John Keahey’s ‘Seeking Sicily’ is a delight.

Is there anything else you would like to mention, do you have any other projects lined up in the near future.

I am concerned that the Sicilian LANGUAGE (it’s NOT a dialect of Italian, although there are many dialects of Sicilian) is not taught in Sicilian schools, and is not spoken by many modern Sicilians, who have drunk the Italian Koolaid and believe that Sicilian is ‘the language of the poor and ignorant’, when it was the first Romance language, pre-dating and helping to form the Tuscan dialect that is now accepted as ‘Italian’.  I encourage fellow Sicilians and their descendants to use the language in their speech and their posts, to help keep it alive.

I also like to remind descendants of immigrants from Abruzzo, Puglia, Calabria and the rest of the Southern ‘Mezzogiorno’ that any of their ancestors born there prior to 1860 were actually Sicilian, subjects of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies or its predecessor the Kingdom of Sicily.

I have a history of Sicily at La Bedda Sicilia,  and at the bottom are links to many Sicily-oriented pages about our language, naming conventions, foundlings, and so on.  I also invite your readers to check out my novella and if they choose to purchase it, to please post a review at Amazon.

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Thanks so much to Angelo, who was so kind to find a moment to talk to me.

His wonderful novella is available as an ebook on Amazon if you want to read it.

Also if you want to do any kind of family research in Sicily he is definitely the man to ask and will readily reply to any questions simply send him a message on his Facebook page here.

A list of Italian themed movies and books for the festive season

 

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

It’s the holiday season so you may have a little time on your hands so I thought I’d recommend a few books and movies with a bit of an Italian theme.

But as is usual in the silly season, I’ve gone and overindulged with the entertainment. Quindi sono guai! So now you are in for it! Get ready for a mega list of movies and great reads from a lifetime lover of Italian cinema and literature, because there is no way in the world I’m going to stick to only one recommendation.
It’s going to be ten of my personal favourite movies and ten fantastic reads I’ve come across in my random journey through Italy.
I’ve tried to keep away from huge commercial successes and clichè building monsters as I’m a bit of a hipster and want to give everyone something different and challenging.
So excuse me while I go ahead and write a totally self-indulgent blog post, in which I hope you will find something new to watch and read.

 

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Photo by Joshua Hanks on Unsplash

 

Movies

Nuovo Mondo (Golden Door: Emanuele Crialese, 2006. Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsborge).

This beautiful migrant story from the early nineteenth century is a lovely mixture of poetry, idealism and surrealism which surrounded the first wave of immigrants to the United States.

It tells the story of one families struggles with poverty, their quest for salvation, the epic journey around the other side of the world and the great leap these people made from one world to the next.

It is an ancient story told through love, tragedy, strength, injustice, with an immense sense of dignity and courage.

 

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Il Postino (Michael Radford, 1994. Massimo Troisi, Philippe Noiret, Maria Grazia Cucinotta).

This movie became an instant classic in the 1990’s and is a beautifully shot masterpiece, filmed on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Messina in Sicily.

It is a sweet little film about friendship, love and poetry. It became even more precious as it was the last movie that Massimo Troisi made, so it is seen as a special tribute to this wonderfully understated Neoplitain actor.

 

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Photo by Matteo Lezzi on Unsplash

 

Room with a view (James Ivory, 1985. Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Helena B.Carter).

This book and film adaptation is one of the reasons I fell in love with Florence. This stunning little arthouse film from the 1980’s is a perfect little love story, Helena Bonham Carter plays the complete English tourist together with an entourage of wonderful English actors who create this hilarious caricatures which were English expats in the early 19th Century.

 

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953. Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn).

1950’s Rome in this sweet little Romantic comedy and modern fairytale is positively intoxicating. Modern Roma is a world away from this classic, but the beauty of these old style actors give this movie a sense of timelessness which makes this one of my all-time favourites.

 

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Photo by Christopher Czermak on Unsplash

 

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960. Marcello Mastrianni, Anita Ekberg) Cassanova, La Strada, Nights of Calabria, 8 1/2, Amarcord.

I adore Federico Fellini, his movies are filled with the energy, charisma, imagination and expressiveness of one of the greatest artists of last century. La Dolce Vita became a symbol of the decadent lifestyle of 1960’s Rome and Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastrianni were symbolic of this innocent, carefree period in Italy’s history.

This year (2018) marks the 25th anniversary of Federico Fellini’s death so I think it is important to revisit these classics of Italian cinema and relive something of this Italian masters energy, flare and style.

Don’t think that Fellini is only La Dolce Vita, his films were made over a lifetime of dedication to the craft of cinema, his movies are considered to be masterpieces of Italian cinema. Be sure to hunt down other classics including his quirky retelling of the life of Cassanova with Donald Sutherland, the movies he made with his wife the iconic Giulietta Masina are also amazing including La Strada and the Nights of Calabria.

Fellini loved to use Marcello Mastriani in his movies, and he has stared in a beautiful collection including the legendary 8 1/2 and an entirely bizarre surreal love letter to women ‘Citta delle Donne’.

The semi-autobiographical Amarcord is a series of comedic and nostalgic vignettes set in the 1930s Italian coastal town where Fellini was born and is a delicious mixture of caricature, surrealism and sexual fantasy.

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Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

The Leopard (Visconti, 1963. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale).

This adaptation of the Sicilian famous novel written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa is a wonderfully epic portrait of the Italian unification in Sicily. The Leopard of the titled is Prince Fabrizio di Salina, the last in a line of an ancient, tired Sicilian aristocracy which is slowly disappearing.

Set during the Italian “Risorgimento” or “The Resurgence,” which stripped Lampedusa’s own family of its royal status the movie focuses on the moment The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies became a part the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, which represented a period of tremendous change on the island.

So the film has a rich historical backdrop to draw from, including the personal reflections of the old Prince, to the raging internal battle between the royalists and republicans and the changes to the Prince’s own family.

 

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Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar on Unsplash

 

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988.) Uomo delle Stelle (the Starmaker) and Baaria.

Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore has a deep love for the Sicily of his childhood, and Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is his love letter to his native island and how it fostered his love of Cinema. Tornatore is a masterful storyteller, his movies are beautifully shot and his Sicilian themed trilogy shows the beauty, tragedy and poetry of his native island.

The Starmaker is about a conman working his way around small Sicilian towns taking advantage of peoples hopes and vanity until it all catches up with him. It uses many non-actors and gives you a sense of the character of Sicily in the post world war period.

While Baaria is shot in Tornatore’s native town of Bagheria, just outside of Palermo and shows the political and social transformation of Sicily after world war two.

 

A summer in Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008. Colin Firth, Perla Haney-Jardine).

This beautiful art-house movie shows off the beauty of the city of Genova and Italy in the intimate story of a family who is trying to survive a terrible tragedy.

 

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Nothing left to do but cry (Benigni & Troisi, 1984).

This quirky little comedy from the 1980’s reflects the offbeat humour of Italian cinema through two of its most well-known exponents. Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi are an incredible duo filled with quirky wordplay and imagination in this cute little romp through Italian history.

 

Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Irons) The Dreamers.

Bernardo Bertolucci is yet another master of Italian cinema, Stealing Beauty was possibly the most commercially successful of his moves, which follows the journey of a young girl after the death of her mother.

While the Dreamers is yet another coming of age film but with a more explicit sexual form of rebellion. Both movies are beautifully shot but are very experimental in nature, definitely something to experience as they are the best examples of recent Italian ‘fringe’ or experimental cinema.

Bertolucci recently passed away this year in Rome (2018) and so it seems fitting tribute to a recent legend of Italian cinema to rewatch his movies in all of their intimate beauty.

 

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Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

 

Books

Lisa Clifford: The promise, Death in the Mountains, Naples a way of love.

Lisa Clifford is an Australia writer and journalist who has been writing and living in Italy for four decades. Her books are excellent reads and reflect her ongoing love affair with Italy.

The promise is about her own personal journey back and forth from Italy to Australia and the long-distance relationship she had with her then Italian boyfriend.

Death in the Mountains is a murder mystery set in the Tuscan countryside based on a story from her husbands family history.

And her latest book Naples a way of love explores the nature of life in the iconic Southern Italian city Napoli.

 

Penelope Green: When in Rome, See Naples and die.

Penelope Green is another Australian writer and her books are very popular and are great summer reads all about her first steps living and working in Italy with an excellent gun-ho attitude and the enthusiasm of youthful naivety.

 

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Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

 

Tim Parks: Italian Neighbours, An Italian education, A literary tour to Italy and Italian Ways.

Time Parks is an English expat who has been living in Italy since 1981. Today he is a well established academic, novelist and translator who writes wonderfully detailed books and essays about Italian literature and travel.

Italian Ways is about rail travel in Italy while his literary tour to Italy takes us on a journey through its most celebrated writers.

But before any of his trips, he was merely a spellbound expat and shared his experiences in Italy through keen and hilarious observations in Italian Neighbours and Italian education.

 

Grazia Deledda: Reeds in the wind.

Grazia Deledda is an Italian Nobel Prize-winning novelist from the cusp of the 19th and 20th century. Most of her novels are set in her native Sardinia and are lovingly crafted portraits of this ancient and mysterious Italian island.

Reeds in the wind follow the down spiralling destiny of the aristocratic Pintor family and are filled with the vibrant language, landscape and eternal voice of Sardinia.

 

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

 

Vitaliano Brancati: Il bel Antonio, Don Giovanni in Sicilia.

Il Bel Antonio (Beautiful Antonio) was developed into a movie starring Marcello Mastroianni, which became a classic of Italian cinema. It is a wonderful book filled with the colours of Sicily and Brancati’s playful comic irony a beautiful iconic read.

The novella Don Giovanni in Sicily is a rich caricature of the Sicilian male which is taken to strange extremes in a modern parable which has a core of honesty that goes beyond any form of realism.

Vitaliano Brancati created a new type of contemporary fable, filled with elaborate farce, humour and eloquent twists of fate.

 

Elio Vittorini: Conversations in Sicily.

Conversazione in Sicilia is an enigmatic work, which is a difficult read thanks to its experimental style which is filled with a stream of conscious like conversations.

The pleasure of the natural discussion between an elderly mother and now adult child, between Sicily and migrant Sicilian is lovely to read and captures the cadence and flow of the Sicilian dialect in a natural conversation.

Yet other times it is easy to get lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long-windedness of the social context of Sicily, like overhearing a conversation and not understanding who is being talked about.

These conversations, like many real ones, are fleeting, flippant, mundane and they slip beyond our grip and understanding. An intriguing book to read.

 

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Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of Finzini-Conti

Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini is a historical novel which chronicles the relationships between the narrator and the children of the wealthy Italian Jewish Finzi-Contini family with the rise of antisemitism and Fascism at the beginning of world war two. And it was also adapted into a well-known movie in Italy,

It is a beautiful, sad story about a dark period in Italian history. The novel captures the eerie ambience in the northern town of Ferrara as Italy loses its innocence before sliding into the evils of the Holocaust.

 

Tobias Jones: The Dark Heart of Italy

In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy in which he described the diabolical character of Italy’s complexities focusing on the post world war two period right up to the Berlusconi years.

After the book’s publication Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about.

Apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones experiences and observations about Italy are insightful even if they are at times a little superficial.

It is a truthful book which expresses the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living life in Italy and highlights the seedy underbelly of corruption which is a blemish in the contemporary Italian character.

 

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Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

 

Laurie Fabiano: Elizabeth Street

This wonderfully poignant personal family history was a labour of love written by the great-granddaughter of Calabrian migrants to America.

It is an epic tale and covers a journey which includes the vibrancy of 1900’s New York bustling with immigrants, the Messina-Calabrian earthquake, Mafia bombings and kidnappings.

The lovingly way Laurie Fabiano weaves the intimate details of her family as they move through different countries, experiences and generations with amazing perseverance and strength is what ultimately stays with you after you live this rich reading experience.
It is a cinematographic story worthy of Scorsese or Ford Coppola.

 

Jhumpa Lahiri: In other words

This fantastic book is an extended love letter dedicated to the Italian language.

In Other Words is at heart a love story of a long and sometimes tricky courtship and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language.

For Pulizer prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri Italian first captivated her during a trip to Florence after college. Seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for a trial by fire diving into a new language and world.

The result of her love affair with Italian is a deeply philosophical memoir which reflects on the nature of language, expression and the art of writing.

 

 

For some specific Sicilian reading, recommendations see my post: Ten books to read instead of visiting Sicily and keep an eye out on my Reading Trincaria reading list which I update regularly.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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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Short and sweet classical history

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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.

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.

Food Festivals in Sicily

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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.

Food Festivals better

 

10 Feste Patronale in Sicilia

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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.

Patron Saint celebrations sicily

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.