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

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Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Seeking Sicily is still available on  Amazon.

Yuletide Sicily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

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

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

The Italian Cenone is the essence of gluttony.

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

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

 

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Photo by Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yuletide Sicily

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.

Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II


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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.

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Spanish Bourbon King Ferdinand II

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Sicily in November

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

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

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

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El Greco – San Martín y el mendigo

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

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

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

 

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

 

Nov in Sicily

 

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

The historical heart of Messina

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Messina’s Madonna

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

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

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

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The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes while singing praises to Mary. The celebration has a long history and is central to the city’s expression of faith and trust in their patron.

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

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

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

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

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

Walking around Messina

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I love walking around and exploring the streets of Messina.

This city is filled with many treasures, and its details tell many stories.
The beauty of the world is always found in small pieces of beauty.
Like in the moments we connect to those around us, a handshake, a smile, a quick greeting, the brush of a cheek, small discrete intimacies which create harmony.

 

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When I notice a pattern on a wall, a small flourish or funny shaped piece in the puzzle, there is a sensation of feeling connected to an essential human past as if feeling the warmth of another palm against my own opened hand.
Each precious little mosaic tile tells you about how it was all put together. A work of art is created one day at a time, one word after the other, one brush stroke at the moment, until one day you step back and see the bigger picture and see you have finished something bigger than yourself, a work which will speak to everyone.
I’d like to share the little details I discovered while exploring on an early morning walk around the city.

Please come with me to Messina.

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Messina is a living, breathing miracle. The city was decimated in one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in European history.

On the early morning of the 28th of December in 1908, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed ninety per cent of the buildings of Messina and Reggio Calabria on the opposite side of the strait which separates Sicily from mainland Italy.

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In the second half of the 1800’s Messina was a thriving hub of economic and cultural activity. It was described as a beautiful city filled with a succession of beautiful palazzi, churches and a beautiful baroque fountain which provided fresh mountain spring water to its inhabitants directly in the centre of the town.

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Gradually over the decades the city has picked up the rubble and rebuilt itself, some reconstruction projects lasting up until the 1980’s while others continue until today.

Many well-known literati, musicians, businessman and barristers worked and lived in the city. The university hosted many famous intellectuals of the day as lecturers.

Even today the University of Messina fills the town with bookstores, trendy cafes, take away stores and restaurants frequented by young students giving Messina the vibrancy that only University towns can have.

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While Messina is usually a chaotic, buzzing metropolis for most of the year as it is the focus of essential offices for the provincial and national government, towards the end of August when most office workers are still on holiday the city is much calmer and more comfortable to explore.

This is when I usually like to go for a visit, explore the typically crowded streets, take the time to soak in the cosmopolitan atmosphere and so some street photography.

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At Messina the buildings are always as expressive as the people, they speak without words, their delicate details tell of their reconstruction, the care and love that was expressed by the locals to never let go of their city, bringing it back from an apocalyptical end.

Unexpected travels in Italy

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

 

Dolce Vita Bloggers have asked us to share our fun tales about travels in Italy. Really every day living here is filled with journeys and experiences, too many to share in one post.

Italy has taught me the art of being a traveller rather than a simple tourist. Because of the immense amount of monuments, museums, churches and art galleries to see it is literally impossible to see everything, so you are forced to choose what speaks most loudly to you.

You need to give yourself space to notice the little things, a detail in design, a quirky cherub in a church, the colours of different mosaic tiles, an exotic door knocker, clothes hanging on a clothesline from a balcony or a beautiful little old lady walking around the markets doing her shopping.

The beauty of Italia is always in the little details, allow yourself the time to observe the bliss of the moment, the sounds of the streets, a vibrant conversation in Italian, a motorino zipping past, the colours of the fruit and vegetables, the feel of the stone on an ancient palazzo, a detail in the architecture. Italy is a feast for the senses, so see, taste, feel, smell and listen to every single moment.

Italia is the home of the unexpected, often you are forced to improvise and be flexible. You will find places closed for lunch, or will be made late by traffic, or find yourself waiting in never-ending lines. But if you embrace the mishaps you will be taken into place you would never have imagined.

For travelling in Italy, you need to pack a good sense of humour, a certain amount of patience and a whole lot of time because anything can and will happen. Trains and planes will be late, locals infuriatingly will not be in a hurry, tourists will be, and you can expect the unexpected.

Sitting down to write this post my mind is ticking over the many strange and funny occurrences on my travels around Italy. Everything from getting off the wrong train station in Tuscany and discovering a totally new town.

To inadvertently catching the last bus to my father’s families original hometown in the Abruzzo region and getting a lift into town with a kind bus driver who turned out to be a distant cousin.

Disastrously following a GPS off the beaten track and into a dry riverbank in the middle of nowhere, thanks to Sicily’s criminal lack of road signs.

Getting hopelessly lost in Venice, finding many cute little stores and accidentally stumbling back on my hotel after an entire afternoon of aimlessly wondering.

Being caught up in a police blitz in Florence and seeing the African street vendors hot tail out from in front of the Uffizi before the Carabinieri arrived.

Or the time I was on a romantic dinner in Lucca and a water pipe burst in the apartment above the restaurant. While being accompanied outside I witnessed an absent-minded elderly man swearing at the janitor of the building because his house had been flooded. The man had just run out of his house accidentally forgetting to put on his pants.

The most amazing moment was when I went to see an exhibition at Florence in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi which was dedicated to the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. After seeing all of the fruits of da Vinci’s imagination and extra detailed models of Filippo Brunelleschi’s project for the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore, at Florence.

After I finished I decided to take a look around the grand Renaissance palace which seemed to be open to the public.

I was about to leave when I noticed a small door to I room I had inadvertently missed, so I went through it.

On the other side, I discovered a small chapel whose walls were covered in the most vibrant and spectacular fresco’s I have ever seen.

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The famous cycle of frescoes was painted by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459 for the Medici family and they left me with a tremendous sense of awe.

The Journey of the Magi is a painting dedicated to a sacred subject but rich in traces of pomp and secular elegance. One wall is dedicated to hosts of angels who sing while the magnificent procession of the Three Kings approaches Bethlehem on a separate wall. The kings are accompanied by their respective entourages as they enjoy the scene of a noble hunting party with falcons and felines along the way.

The sumptuous dress of the regal party makes this series of frescos one of the most fascinating testimonies of art and costume of all time. The procession of characters features prominent Florentine nobles from Renaissance, merchants and artists which are painted with such vibrancy that they seem alive. The colours and style of Gozzoli are amazing the fresco looks so contemporary as to seem to be painted yesterday.

Reading up about the work Gozzoli, really had wonderful fun depicting local characters of Medici Florence, even inserting himself and featuring a particularly acrobatic horse who is miraculously able to balance on two legs.

This was a work of art, I discovered entirely by accident, just by following my own nose.

 

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Photo by Dario Veronesi on Unsplash

 

A trip to Italy is indeed an adventure, so I’d advise you to keep these three things in mind:

1) You will be late for one reason or another, so give yourself plenty of extra time.

2) Let yourself get lost, that’s when you discover the most unexpected things.

3) Allow yourself to wonder and interact with the locals, go to local events and do plenty of people watching.

 

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Photo by La So on Unsplash

 

Italy is so colourful you really need to give yourself the time to absorb its unique energy, colours, flavours, art and history.

Think of a vacation to Italy as an adventure, go down the side streets, through tiny little doors on the side of churches, try a trattoria or bar where you see the locals spilling out onto the streets. Move out of your comfort zone, try something you usually don’t do.

I guarantee it will be the best experience ever.

And the most memorable vacation of your life.

Sicily Inside and Out is about sharing my own travel experiences in Sicily here are some of my favourites:

The one time I went to Etnaland 

The stone garden of Noto

On the road to Syracuse

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The one time I went to Etnaland

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Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Every year a group from my small Sicilian town of Sinagra organises a pilgrimage to the Etnaland amusement park at Belpasso outside of Catania. In the summer months, the waterpark is open until the early evening, and the connected theme park rides are put into motion as the locals spend their evenings spinning, dipping and riding around until the early morning.

This year I was swept up by the enthusiasm of my eight-year-old son, who had never been on a waterslide and was somehow tricked into wanting to relive my childhood. I remembered the wind blowing through my hair on toboggan rides with my best friend at the tritely named Adventure World, a magnet for children on school holidays in Western Australia, together with summer barbecues and walks through Kings Park, a hundred acre patch of natural bush right near the centre of the Perth CBD.

I was determined to create some memories for my son, after this year’s most disappointing persistently rainy summer. I happily got up at six am, took the long bus ride, paid the exorbitant entrance fee, and made a packed lunch.

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The day began by dipping our feet and bottoms into the extra large doughnut-shaped floating devices which took us along the ‘slow river’ ride, gently being pushed along by the leisurely paced artificial current while intermittent water features and fountains sprayed us around the circuit.

Lulled into a clear yet false sense of security we decided to test out something more adventurous. My son had seen a waterslide on the parks web page called ‘the black hole’ and was determined to have his official water park baptism on it.

Now I should have guessed the true nature of this ride, by the name alone, the phrase Black Hole doesn’t precisely evoke unicorns and rainbows. But from the outside, it didn’t seem too fierce, and it resembled similar fun waterslides in Australia.

While we sat down on our little double seater water raft at the mouth of the steep pitch black tube, I wondered how I would be able to reassure my son in case he becomes frightened, and I resolved to make happy, encouraging yahooing sounds on the way down. As the water rushed past us and pushed us down into the absolute darkness I suddenly remembered, I’m no longer a child and I actually hate water slides.
What followed was a brief moment of absolute terror. The sensory deprivation of the pitch black meant we could not see one another even if we were one in front of each other, nor prepare ourselves for the twists, turns and bumps along the tube of terror.
Needless to say, my reassuring yahoo noises were actually more like hyperactive teenage girl squeals and screams. My niece who was waiting for us near the chute’s pool heard us coming down and said my son’s frightened eyes looked as if they were ready to pop out of their orbits.
The worst thing about water slides is the sense of losing control over your own movements, once you start there’s no going back, you just need to sit back and try to enjoy the ride, or in my case scream your lungs out.
Then there is the sudden realisation of all the naked foreign bodies who have also sat on the same mats, seats and lifesavers as you, yes the water is chlorinated, but there is a distinct sensation of uncleanliness.
Childhood is such a wonderful time when you seek out adventure, live in the moment and never see the danger. Sadly I’m no longer in that phase of my life and have become quite a snob.

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To my surprise, the Etnaland crowd is far from snobbish as it seems most of Catania comes here to cool off during the sweltering Catanese summer. The lava rock landscape around the city is scorching and apart from the odd swimming pool, air-conditioned shopping malls, fountain, crowded rocky beaches, and after dark piazza, there aren’t many options for cooling off, so the water park is a substantial part of the summer entertainment.
Ranked among the twenty best water parks in the world Etnaland is an endless hive of activity with busloads of people coming from throughout Sicily and many families from Europe. It’s a beautiful spot for people watching, as different waves come in, strip down into bathers and head off to the rides for the whole day.
I’ve never seen so much overexposed flesh in one place, it’s actually beautiful to see how so many people can be comfortable with their own bodies and its great to see this immense power for body positivity. But sun worshipers roasting their skin is actually quite unhealthy, and I felt quite overdressed with my shorts and sun proof shirt designed to protect my pale flesh from sunburn. Some habits from my Australian childhood will never grow old.

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On the whole, the day trip is a good family day out, the place is well organised, clean, safe and very popular. The only downside was having to wait in line for the rides, but if you are shrewd and head out to the more popular ones while everyone else is having lunch, you can avoid some of the confusion.
Basically, you arrive, throw everything you have into a locker you hire for the day and strip down to your bathing suit and then crisscross the dozens of water rides and pools around the park. There is literally something for everyone from kiddy pools to rides with names like Kamikaze, Twister, Giant Toboggan, Red Cannon, Jungle Splash, Colossum and Titania. There are complimentary maps available at the entrance, so it’s easy to plan out your day.
The many park employees are positioned around the place with cameras taking everyone’s photos on the rides. At the entrance to the park you are given the option to get a bracelet which is scanned after every picture, and when you are finished, you can go and see your photos at the photo booth and purchase prints for about 10 euros a pop.
For those who are looking to relax on a deck chair by the pool all day you can hire a spot, buy a cocktail at one of the many overpriced open bars and restaurants. If you don’t have an energetic child dragging you around the park, you can dip into the artificial wave pool which is put into motion every hour together with an active dance party complete with twerking and gesticulating dancing girls, if that’s what you like.

If everything gets too much at the end of the day there is a relaxing spa bath to massage your aching muscles, just in case you need it, there’s something for everyone really.

Mata and Grifone

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Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.

Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.

Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).

This intriguing tale has been interpreted many times, and the characters at its heart have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.

The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots in an attempt to recreate the bountiful fertility.

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A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city is also featured in the religious procession.

The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina, after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.

Roger, I was a Norman nobleman he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.

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In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery lead to the widespread belief that Sicily was founded by giants. The elephant skulls were also taken as proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skulls peculiar shape, and a typical single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.

Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods, the pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone who was the daughter of the goddess of nature Demeter and who was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife. There is a secure connection to many other pagan gods representing contrasting elements which coexist such as night and day, male and female and winter and summer.

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The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman caught the eye of Grifone a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.

Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did and then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.

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Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella an orphaned noble girl who is jealously guarded by her three brothers.

Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to put an end to the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and on their return home tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.

Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it. The plan blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.

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In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotive moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore, for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.

Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers who treated her like an object.
The Romantic’s version is set in Florence, the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder occurs. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
Behind every work of art, there is always a story, Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy and loss.

The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the islands rich yet dark mythology.

Food and religious festivals in Sicily this August

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August is a month filled with endless food and religious celebrations which fill the table with local fare and many opportunities to witness ancient patron saint festivals. Most Italians have their annual summer vacation this month, so there is a particularly hectic series of outdoor events paired with epic traffic jams to match!

Italy in August means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsula as all Italians go to the beach, up to the mountains or overseas.

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Ferragosto is the mid-August holiday, the Latin term Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), was celebration first introduced by Emperor Augustus in 18 BC. In addition to the existing Roman festivals which celebrated harvest times, the Roman Empire chose to revel in the heat and basically take the month to rest.

During the ancient celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. The many Palio horse races all around Italy still reflect these ancient Roman celebrations. The name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the prize given to winners of these horse races.

The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular tours. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.

Today the 15th of August is a national holiday and a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic church believes it was the day when the Madonna’s sinless soul and the incorruptible body was taken up to heaven.

 

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Source: I stock by Getty Images

In Sicily and Italy, there are many ancient festivities in cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector. Ferragosto in Sicily offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo (Catania) to Messina, Capo d’Orlando (Messina), Motta d’Affermo (Catania), Novara di Sicilia (Messina), Montagnareale (Messina), Piazza Armerina (Enna), Aci Catena (Catania) and many more.

 

Here are some annual events to pin for later and check out in August.

 

August in Sicily

 

For an impressive complete list see Sicilia in Festa which provides the most up to date information about festivities province by province during the year for all visitors to Sicily.

Be sure to check out official event links and web pages as event dates may be changed.

A walk to the fig tree

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In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.

The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.

According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.

 

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After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.

 

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When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.

 

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While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.

 

 

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The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.

 

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We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.

The exciting possibilities are endless.

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Sagre and Feste in July

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Food and religious festivals (sagre and feste) all over the peninsula are at the heart and soul of Italian traditions. The ones celebrated on the island of Sicily are particularly rich in history, colour and taste.

Sicilians are proud of their cuisine and dedicate a considerable amount of effort in preparing and sharing their typical plates. So a visit to a sagra is a celebration and invitation to taste the best of Sicily.

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While patron Saint celebrations have a long history in Sicily and Italy linked to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. Sicilians have a sincere dedication to their hometown Saints and a visit to a big feast day will give a unique experience into the intriguing history of Sicily as each has been linked to a particular place for centuries.

The Saints statues are works of art unto themselves, their stories are miracles are amazing tales, and the churches they are housed in are filled with more colour and art still. The celebrations include elaborate pageants like processions, music, fireworks, food and costumes.

Sicily is dedicated to its Saints and cuisine, and these elaborate parties show the best side of the island for all to see.

Here are some events to pin for your next trip to Sicily.

July in sicily

Summer decadence

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Sicily is filled with many culinary delicacies throughout the year, but it seems to outdo itself for the summer holidays when everyone is out to have a good time and forget their diets. There are the usual pastries and the cliché gelati but two particular summer favourites which simply must not be missed by any visitor to the island.

The first is the simple granita, an iced drink offered in a variety of flavours including lemon, strawberry, coffee, chocolate, almond, berry, peach etc. (the choice is limitless, depending on the imagination of your local café bar owner.) To be clear this isn’t merely shaved ice flavoured with artificial syrups, they are made from fresh seasonal fruit and ingredients.

       

 

The most irresistible temptation for a summer breakfast is packed with tonnes of, ‘ruin your diet,’ calories but, ‘really who the hell cares about that’ taste. A coffee granita, for caffeine lovers, is the ultimate iced coffee. It must be consumed with a thick layer of fresh cream and a giant sweet bread briosche to dip into it as you mix the cream into this exquisite creation.
For those who aren’t a fan of coffee try strawberry with fresh cream, when you mix the two together, it is like eating strawberries and cream. Or if you have something against fresh cream and sweet bread try ordering lemon and strawberry swirled together for a refreshing summertime drink.

 

Secondly but by no means inferior to the granita is an ice cream filled sweet bread. Yes, my friends you heard it right, a mega serving of ice cream inside a bread roll for a hamburger with a difference.
Not for the faint-hearted, a brioche con gelato is a regular meal substitute. Don’t, for example, have it after a big continental breakfast or a typical several course Italian meal because you will end up feeling very ill.
It may seem like a strange thing to eat but believe me, you will be tempted by a filling of two or more of your favourite ice creams, which will be complemented by the texture of the extra soft pastry as you devour it.
Try it, and you’ll understand what I mean.

 

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