In every paese
there is an energy
filled with the spirit
of young & old paesani
Every paese has its old palazzi,
a Chiesa Madre, held together
by the perspiration
of local priests.
In every paese, children run to catechism
bounding, yelling and jumping
as only youth does.
Every paese has its
drunks, madmen, fools
as it has its
professore, avvocati, mamme e sindaci
In every paese there is a
Peter Pan, Bar del Corso,
smoke filled Tabaccheria
a piazza 24 aprile,
monumento ai caduti
e santi padroni.
Every paese is haunted by the ghosts
of those who went away,
of dead mafiosi,
Saraceni who were exiled
from their beloved island.
In every paese there are one eyed peasants
who will signally love their town
even if it is gradually decaying and crumbling
they see the beauty of their youth
and life pass before their eyes,
blind to the decay of time.
Every paese is filled with the desperation,
tears and joy of many lives lived
side by side for eternity.
The world of blogging is fascinating, you meet many people who have the same interests as you, your ego gets a boost with every new subscriber and like and after a few years you begin to be viewed as an expert in your particular niche.
While I always enjoy hearing from my readers, answering questions and giving travel advice I occasionally get an email asking me about how to move to Sicily. I am honoured at the thought, some people see me as wise enough to give them advice I am always a little hesitant to dish out my opinion as everyone has their particular journey in life and I shouldn’t interfere with it.
But on the other hand, when I get a detailed email from someone asking for some help, I am ethically obliged to give them some home truths.
Recently I got an email with a list of questions which I thought would be helpful for anyone else considering a move to Sicily, as I’m sure many readers are thinking along the same lines as this person.
Here are the questions and honest answers about living in Sicily:
I am paying a loan while working a full-time job and my partner has a plan is to sell our home and buy two properties, one to live in and the other one to rent for us to be able not to work. I think he’s just fantasising about this and this cannot be realistic?
Well, you could buy an excellent investment property at a reasonable price in Sicily, and the general cost of living in Sicily is much cheaper than living anywhere else in Europe, but it would be risky, what if you don’t like it here? It can be very challenging for foreigners to adapt to the quite close-knit communities of Sicily.
What I’d suggest doing would be to come over and rent a place here for a few months on an extended holiday. Don’t go selling your home just yet.
Try coming for a couple of months in the autumn/winter and search around for places you might like to buy and try out how life in Sicily fits you.
What about the education of my child in Sicily? Will he get a good education? What about the University?
I live in a small town in Sicily, and my son has been going to the local primary school which has been a lovely experience, the schools are quite traditional, but the teachers are very attentive to their students. While the infrastructure is a bit run down the schools and high schools are just fine, and there are many universities to choose from in Sicily and Italy in general, and you can always look into other European Universities in the future.
The only problem would be if you’d like your child to speak English, the English in the schools is rather basic so you could look into International schools or will have to teach your son English (which is what I am currently doing with mine) it’s time-consuming but well worth the effort.
I recently wrote a guest post about my experiences teaching my son English in a small town in Sicily if you’d like to read it on Mammaprada: The trials of raising a bilingual child in small-town Italy.
I cannot speak Italian and don’t understand it which for sure is a disadvantage.
Now this one may be a problem, you will need to have a basic understanding of Italian at least as there is very little English spoken outside of the major cities, so if you do consider moving here down the line, you’d need to work on this. But there are many schools around, even online if you are interested.
Is Sicily getting financially better or worse? Will there be any real jobs in the future?
Well, things in Sicily have always been slow economically, there is a high unemployment rate, and I’m not sure if it’s going to improve.
There is a considerable demand for ESL teachers, and you could probably find work with something like a CELTA qualification, teaching online is another option, you might be able to find a job in tourism or if you see a property consider turning it into a B&B, and there are many other ways to work online these days. It depends on where your skills lie, and you may need to get creative, do some private tutoring or start up a business that you think would benefit the local community.
Things like photography, babysitting, English, website design, hairdressing, beauty, nursing or as a carer anything you might see an opportunity for or are lacking in your particular community.
Crime. Is it safe to go out in the evenings? Is it safe to leave my son playing outside? Is it safe to let him go out when he’s a teenager?
I don’t think there is any need to be concerned about crime. If you are living in a small town, it is quite safe. In the bigger cities, you have to use your common sense like you’d do anywhere else, i.e., be aware of your surroundings, keep away from shady places like train stations and dodgy neighbourhoods.
Letting your son play outside shouldn’t be a problem. And when he’s a teenager, he’d well and truly have his own trusted group of friends and places where he knows it is safe to hang out and by then you’d have all of the other parent’s phone numbers from his school just in case you need them
Would having a place for rent be enough to be able to live comfortably without working? If not, is it difficult to find a job? I currently work as a manager; however, I have never been to university.
The price of living in Sicily is very reasonable, you could probably live off a rental property, but that would also depend on if you get a good tenant. It is easy to rent a place out for the summer.
You’d also have to consult an accountant here in Italy to see about how much tax you’d need to pay, as there are some tax allowances for new businesses, but there are also some tricky aspects to tax in Italy which can be quite high.
As for the work situation, I’ve already mentioned this.
On the whole, if you are seriously thinking about moving to Sicily I’d suggest you come to stay for a while if you can manage it, take a look around visit a few places and get a feel for the area.
Life in Sicily isn’t perfect, but there is a beautiful sense of community, Sicilians are wonderfully generous, life is slow paced, there is a lot of bureaucracy, but the cost of living is much better.
You’d need to invest time in learning Italian, you may feel a little isolated, but there are lots of expats here.
I hope I’ve answered some of your questions and it’s given you a little indication about life here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The festive season is always a beautiful time of the year to visit Sicily as it is filled with the colours, tastes and sensations of a traditional Sicilian Christmas.
A Yuletide Sicily offers visitors a unique way of experiencing the island which is inhabited by fewer tourists and is ultimately a more authentically Italian celebration.
December in Sicily is about traditions based around the nativity, Christmas markets with a little decadence thrown in.
Winter on the island over the past few years has been rather pleasant, apart from the chilly weather, a definite chill in the air, some rain it is quite rare to see snow be deposited around most of the island, apart from of the higher parts and the snowfields of the Madonie Mountains and Etna’s favourite skiing tracks.
The focus of December is as always about the food and traditions, the advent calendar is filled with roasted chestnuts in the squares, folk concerts around churches, food festivals dedicated to things like fried dumplings and other sweets. Wine is always featured in winter feats, and roasted pork is the featured meat dish.
As Christmas gets closer there impromptu folk music performances featuring traditional instruments like the Sicilian bagpipe or zampogna. Religious art is always a firm part of the Christmas season with exhibitions of detailed dioramas of the Nativity in Papier Mache, or even live reenactments of the nativity tale from the Bible.
Every major city has its own traditional characteristic Christmas markets filled with folk art, Christmas decorations and food and wine stands which are also common in other European cities.
In Sicily, the religious festivals are as always a substantial part of the events and include everything from the feast days of St Barbara, the Immaculate Conception, San Nicola di Bari, St Lucy, Santo Natale, San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve) through to and the Epiphany in early January.
The festive table is always filled with baroque bounties where the best of what is available is consumed liberally throughout Sicily.
Christmas celebrations are seriously religious here in Italy, but the true religion is not in a church but at the table, a hedonistic ritual which demands extensive preparation and consumption. Celebrations begin on the Eve’s. Yes, the most important meals are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve which stuff you with so much food you don’t want to eat for an entire year.
The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony.
A Sicilian menu is endless: starting with appetisers like bruschetta, arancini rice balls, fried bread batter, canapes, cheeses, ham and cold meats. Then a selection of at least two different pasta dishes which could be anything like lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, farfalle or fusilli prepared with an array of rich sauces ranging from hefty béchamel flavoured with smoked salmon, porcini mushrooms or the classic Bolognese. The menu varies depending on which part of Italy you find yourself. Some believe each Vigilia must be celebrated only with seafood.
A typical menu can include main courses of roasted beef, pork, lamb, chicken, baby kid, wild boar, stuffed pigs feet, fried crumbed veal cutlets, fried baccalà or dried and salted cod, seafood salad, Russian coleslaw or lobster. Everything is washed down with red and white wines, topped off with a selection of exotic and winter fruits such as pineapple, dried figs stuffed with hazelnuts, oranges, mandarines.
Then there is the obligatory slab of Panettone or Pandoro Christmas cake for those who don’t like sultanas or caramelised fruit. Not to mention the endless desserts like drenched liquor dumplings, cannoli, profiterole cream puffs and alike!
Finally, there is a glass of sparkling Spumante for good luck, before a night of indigestion and antacids.
For those brave of heart and strong of stomach you might indulge in a shot of digestive liquor ranging from potent Grappa, sour as hell Amaro, lemony Lemoncello or deliciously light chocolate or hazelnut delights.
The Cenone is sacred, and it’s only once a year, thank goodness!
The abundance of Christmas provisions serves to be shared with equally abundant friends and family as the festive season is where the gregarious Italian culture finds its true expression, it is excessive but needs to be as you never know how many relatives will show up between Christmas and new years.
Here below is my own personal list of events in Sicily this December (2018) for you to pin and use as a guide on your Yuletide planning.
Buon Natale to everyone and to all a good Nye celebration.
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.
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.
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.
During the week you will see many families stroll around the square with their children, or take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot day and catch the tram to different parts of the city. It is also where the local MacDonalds is located so there will often be groups of teenagers slurping soft drinks. While others use it as a meeting spot before or after their shopping sprees.
The memory of the time when Messina was practically erased from existence seems to have been forgotten as this thriving modern, cosmopolitan city busily goes about its daily business.
The Chiesa di San Tommaso Apostolo il Vecchio is a precious artefact of the Norman period of Sicily. It dates back between 1061 and 1109 under the reign of Count Roger the first, a French Catholic ruler whose crusading knights left for the Middle East from the port of Messina.
For many years it was known as the church of the Concezione delle Vergini Riparate until it was given the name of San Tommaso Apostolo from 1530.
It is a fantastic example of Norman Arab architecture, which borrowed the dome structure of the Mosque and placed within the very stoic, classic lines of the Norman style.
Walking past the tiny church right in the centre of Messina fills the imagination with images from of Sicilian history, you can almost see the crusaders ending their prayers and galloping onwards to the port and then the holy land.
Sicilian churches and cathedrals simply take my breathe away, the mixture of extravagant styles from baroque, Norman, Gothic, Romanesque, Catalanian and many more. Together with the tremendous artistry of marble work, sculptures, woodwork and small details unique to this part of the world which easily mixes so many cultures in its complex history.
The Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani in Messina a most unexpected church to visit. It is literally only a short walk away from the Cathedral at Messina and is easily missed as its entrance is located under street level hidden down a flight of stairs it is often closed but if you are lucky to sneak inside you will see one of the best examples of Norman architecture on Sicily.
The church dates from the 12th century, built on top of the ruins of an older temple dedicated to Neptune, the church is a beautiful mix of different cultural elements. The church displays influences from Arab and Byzantine architecture and also contains Roman elements.
The central apse is well-preserved with small intricate bricks which form an archway around a beautiful dark-skinned Christ on a crucifix at its centre. The church is popularly used for local weddings, and if you are lucky to see it decorated for such an event, it is truly spectacular.
The name of the church comes from merchants from Catalonia who established a presence in Messina in the 16th century.
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.
Messina’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was built in 1852 by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies.
The building is in the Neoclassical style and was designed by Neapolitan architect Pietro Valente. Previously known as the Teatro Sant’ Elisabetta its name was changed after the Expedition of the Thousand (Italian Spedizione dei Mille) which was a part of the Italian Risorgimento that took place in 1860.
A corps of volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed from Quarto, near Genoa (now Quarto dei Mille) and landed in Marsala, Sicily to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the Spanish Bourbons in a bid to help unify the Italian peninsula into modern Italy we know today.
The three archways at its portico entrance are elegant in the early morning sunshine and are embellished by marble architecture created by Messina’s sculpture Saro Zagari.
Walking by the theatre in the early morning the building is covered in a beautiful golden glow, each elegant embellishment seems to catch your eye and it is always a focus of contemporary art and performance. It’s outer halls often are host to exhibitions from antique opera costumes to contemporary pop art there is always something to see.
Intrigued by these two busts engraved into the front of the theatre I googled them immediately on my phone. Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749 – 1803) was an Italian dramatist and poet and considered the creator of the Italian tragedy.
While Giovanni Battista Niccolini (1782 – 1861) was a believer in the independence of Italy and his neoclassical drama showed his idealistic belief in liberal politics with a distinct romantic flare. So it is no surprise why these two playwrights are featured on the facade of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II at Messina. Both were symbols of the new Italian theatre when the building was first constructed.
Inside the theatre, the ceiling was decorated by Sicily’s most well known contemporary artist Renato Guttuso and represents the legend of the half man half fish Colapesce who dived below the island to discover its mysteries.
The expansive painting is stark, modern and typically evocative as is usual in Guttuso’s style. The anorexic mermaids pose around observing the skeletal Cola Pesce who is diving naked down under the island of Sicily to discover the lava river flowing at its foundations. Noticing one of the four pillars holding up Sicily is about to give way he stays below, helping to hold up the island from the abyss below.
In between Christmas and New Years of 1908 Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was enjoying its winter Opera season as a thriving Sicilia Opera house.
On the 28th of December as the crowd of spectators had finished enjoying an excellent performance of Verdi’s Aida and the orchestra was packing up to go home in the early morning, the worst tragedy possible happened, wiping out the grand city in a dozen or so terrifying seconds of the earthquake and tidal wave.
The aftermath is the subject of hundreds of books, biographies and testimonies which tell the sad tale of too little help arriving too late, hundreds of orphans, looting and thievery of ruined houses, broken families, fortunes and hopes. Millionaires became paupers, a thriving city reduced to rubble in seconds, the population became ghosts and the city a desolate wreck.
And many more stories still of heroic acts, of many locals who returned home to help their city to rebuild, the Italian Parliament who decided to fund the reconstruction of a town which no longer existed, the many generations of people who lived in temporary homes while the city was rebuilt and the many acts of kindness towards Messina from the Italian royal family to the entire world.
The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II reopened its doors for performances once again in 1980.
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.
Messina has a special connection to its Parton the Virgin Mary. Not only does she welcome the ships into the port with her giant golden statue at the entrance of the naturally formed inlet. She has many churched dedicated to her, and her image is at the centre of the city’s immense faith and religious celebrations.
On the third of June, a procession is dedicated to the Sacred Hair of Mary, a single strand of hair which according to the myth was tied around the letter sent to the city. The scroll is part of a procession around the town for the Madonna della Lettera.
For the mid-August holidays, a float is constructed in her honour at Messina. The Vara, an elaborate cart depicts the biblical structure of the universe from the earth up to the heavens completed with a hierarchy of angels ending with the image of Christ who supports his mother in the palm of his hand raising her into the sky as she ascends body and soul into heaven.
The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes while singing praises to Mary. The celebration has a long history and is central to the city’s expression of faith and trust in their patron.
The Quattro Fontane (four fountains) once dominated the corners of the two main streets of the city in pre-1908 Messina between Via Austria (now via I Settembre) and Via Cardines. The decorative fountain heads were constructed between 1666 and 1742.
The immense structures were symbolic of the city’s beauty and aesthetics before the disaster hit. Palermo’s surviving Quattro Canti mimic the style and grandeur of what Messina’s four fountains may have been.
The first fountain was designed by Florentine architect I. Mangani while later in 1717 the second was made by a local sculpture Ignazio Buceta. While the final two were completed in 1742 by unknown artists.
Damaged significantly in the 1908 earthquake the two remaining fountains have been reassembled in the surviving stretch of Via Cardines, while fragments of the other fountains in this series are preserved in the Regional Museum of Messina together with many artefacts left behind in the aftermath of the destruction of the city.
The details in the two reconstructed fountain heads recall the influence of the Tuscan and Roman style which was popular in the seventeenth century. The elaborate decorative heads and features remember elements of mythology and the artistry behind their designs is obvious.
Even if only a little part of these fountains survived, it is certain they were terrific to witness when they first became a part of the city of Messina.