What to do in Sicily

I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.

Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.

The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!

Aeolian Islands

These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.

The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.

You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.

North coast of Sicily

I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.

I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.

I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.

The heart of Sicily

The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.

I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.

Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.

Noto Valley

For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.

I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.

Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.

Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.

Around Etna

A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).

You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.

If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.

Cultural Sicily

You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.

I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.

The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.

Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.

If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.

The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.

Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.

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5 easy steps to becoming a good tourist in Italy

COSI good tourist

 

1) Don’t complain too much

So it really doesn’t matter if you can’t track down your favorite candy bar or if they do things differently here. Italy is an old country so things are kinda slow, it will be dusty and a little dirty but that’s to be expected.

Nothing is going to be like home so go with it, embrace the difference, stop swiping your smartphone and savor life the Italian way. You will be stepping into another magical world embrace the change. Try to eat, live and drink like the locals, even if you don’t usually drink wine or eat pasta, forget all your diets, leave the beer behind for a bit and be like an Italian. Try each regional and local speciality from fresh pastas, cheeses, cold cuts, breads, drinks and desserts. Just live in the moment and stop being uptight, don’t program every moment just allow yourself to explore and discover Italy, walk around, observe and be open, this country is filled with surprises which will astound you.

2) Dress appropriately

If you don’t want to feel out of place or get stared at. Italians are impeccable dressers and so hot pants, wife beaters and skin tight jeans aren’t going to cut it. Dress neatly, do your hair and try to look smart. I know it will be hot in the summer too don’t strip off your clothes, it is not suitable. If you intend to visit important attractions and churches, bring a scarf to cover bare arms or legs, it is only respectful. Your dress will also identify you as a tourist and could make you a target for pick pockets, shifty souvenir vendors and horny Italian men who can be a little aggressive. What can I say? Italians are superficial, they can read a lot about a person by their dress, so make an effort and you will fit in better and feel a little more fashionable, it is worth the effort.

3) If you are coming to Sicily, don’t make jokes about the Mafia

 No country wants to be identified or recall the worst part of their recent history. Look beyond the stereotypes do not try to reinforce them. Sicily isn’t about organized crime it is about ancient history and art. La Sicilia is made up of nine diverse provinces each with its own distinct traditions and cuisine to explore: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa and Trapani. Explore all of Sicily, it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean and you won’t do it in a couple of days 😉

4) To avoid being ripped off by money exchange rates

Or without the pain of having to track down an American Express office for travelers cheques, try taking money out from an ATM, you will be charged only for using another banks ATM but it is handy. Talk to your bank about it. It is always a good idea to take some cash as some places don’t accept credit cards.

5) Don’t say ‘Ciao’ to everyone

You say ‘Buongiorno’ (in the morning) / ‘Buonasera’ (in the afternoon) and ‘Grazie’ all the time. Be polite rather then friendly, Italians will appreciate the effort. It would be nice if you try to learn a little Italian, just the basics even if you study a phrase book or download a couple of podcasts to listen to on the way to work a few weeks before you leave. It is amazing how friendly Italians can be when they see you are trying to experience their culture and country by attempting to speak in their language. I think Italians get a bad wrap for being arrogant to tourists but often they have seen so many tourists come through who simply don’t say ‘grazie’, try it and you will notice. Having a basic vocabulary will help you navigate Italy better and understand more of what is going on around you too.

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North verses South in Italy: from stereotypes to rampant individualism

 

North Verses South Italy

 

Yes, there is a difference between Northern and Southern Italy; in fact it took a major political and social movement to merge the different states of the Italian peninsula in the nineteenth century. The process began with the congress of Vienna at the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1815 and continued with various revolutions and internal conflicts to finally proclaim Rome as the capital of the Kingdom on Italy in 1871.

The reason the ‘Risorgimento’ period took so long to put Italy together is simply because each Italian region is really so unique, even today there is a strong cultural individualism which makes it difficult to group Italians together. It may be a pithy example but just look how each region has its own different cuisine each town has its own type of pasta, wine, cheeses, festivals, traditions and even dialect.

Italian dialects are not simply variations in accents they are different languages, so its normal there is going to be some cultural conflicts there.

A personal example of mine are my own parents, my Dad was born on the Adriatic coastal town of Vasto in the Abruzzo region of central Italy and his dialect is heavy with Croatian and Greek influences. While my mother, born in Sicily and speaks a dialect peppered with diverse influences from Arabic, Turkish, Norman and German (Sicily boasts thirteen distinct foreign dominations in their history each of which has left its mark on the Sicilian language). So if my folks speak their dialects they won’t understand one another, even if standardised Florentine Italian is taught in the schools, dialects are strong in the homes and Italian is spoken with deep regional accents.

Unification of Italy infographic
Taken from Wikipedia

Italians are staunchly parochial, the phenomenon of campanilismo is an important aspect of life in Italy it creates a sense of identity, pride and belonging to the place of your birth with a pinch of local rivalry which is stronger than any sense of national identity.

The geographical isolation between one town and the other thanks to the Italian Alps doesn’t exactly help with unifying the various sub cultures and actually magnifies the Italians sense of distance from their compatriots. I am constantly bemused when Sicilians compare cities from different parts of the same province as if they are talking about two different countries.

Then we come to all the stereotypes like these I have overheard in conversations through my years living in Italy:

Northerners are cold and calculating.
Southerners are lazy and corrupt.
Northerners are efficient and money hungry.
Southerners are inefficient and poor.
In reality these problems exist in both the North and South and such generalisations are nonsense.

Matteo Salvini the ultra-conservative and current leader of the Lega Nord political party is a creation of the Umberto Bossi separatist movement of the 1980’s/90’s which attempted to cut Italy into two pieces. According to the Lega the South has sponged off the North’s industry and would be better off without them. On the flip side Raffaele Lombardo’s independent Sicily movement was seeking the succession of Sicily from Italy after centuries of underdevelopment on the island. Neither have succeeded in their bids, Salvini recently trawling Sicily for votes in the next upcoming election and Lombardo is being dragged through the courts on corruption charges.

Italy is such a rich place which has been inhabited by human beings since Palaeolithic times, each generation layering itself upon the one before, creating endless complexities which link Italian together and create a rampant form of individualism associated with closely linked communities and families.

The North verses South debate is a result of this complex tapestry.

 

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Leading an authentic life in Sicily

Authenticity Quality of being genuine to

My friends and family think I am totally insane to be living my life in Italy, they are waiting for me to come to my senses and move back to Australia, like I’ve been playing around for the past decade of my life.

The truth is it’s been more than chasing a dream, I’m not bathing myself under ‘the Tuscan sun’ or running a bed and breakfast in Puglia.

Brolo c:da castello

I live in small town Sicily which at times is trying for my patience, challenging for my sense of space and privacy and above all it comes with an entire spectrum of misunderstandings and culture shock with whoever is around me. So why do I do it to myself?

Because Italy talks to me, it whispers sweet nothings into my ear, makes me laugh as loud as I ever have, it allows me the time to write, smell the pasta sauce on the stove and taste life.

Italy has infuriated me as much as it has made me fall evermore in love with it.

Moving to Italy has changed me, it has made me let go of many unimportant things, life here is more authentic, a simple less cluttered life which speaks to me louder and clearer than anything else.

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Multicultural Sicily (whether they like it or not)

The concept of ‘multiculturalism’ is a source of debate throughout the world, whether it is possible for a country to become truly multicultural and if different cultures really can exist peacefully side by side or is it simply a utopia.

Italy in particular resists other cultures mixing with the domineering Italian one.

 

Minister Cécile Kyenge from thegardian.com
Minister Cécile Kyenge
from thegardian.com

Minister of Integration, Cécile Kyenge has been criticized by the ultra right ‘Lega Nord’, who was founded with the initial desire to separate Northern Italy from the ‘lazy south’ and now tends to worry about migrant issues, how the economic crisis is closing down industry in the North and how to get out of the Euro currency.

Italians are being forced to deal with the issues of refugees, immigration, a low birth rate and the arrival of Asian and African migrants and cultures into Italy at unprecedented levels.

Sicilians are particularly insular people, they are proud and defensive when confronted with newcomers, it is an unattractive trait left over from a history of being dominated by invaders their history tells of thirteen major foreign dominations which have left scars and impressions on the island’s culture.

Even on the level of language Italy is a very much a monolingual country with a resistance to English which is leaving them behind in Europe.

The irony behind of all this fear, racism and resistance to other cultures is that the rich Sicilian traditions have come about by living with these other dominations and inadvertently taking elements from them.

Some periods in Sicilian history have been long, peaceful and fruitful collaborations, for example the early Greek colonies were productive and cooperative, creating developments in agriculture and industry (such as olive oil production and ceramics).

In the Norman period of the middle ages, the court of Frederick II, we saw Roman Catholics and Muslims living together in harmony, each religion was practiced side by side and the court brought together many of the greatest schools of thought creating many developments in the areas of science, agriculture, industry and culture. The historic Sicilian school of poetry is regarded as one of the finest and anticipated the Florentine school of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

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Sicilian food, language and culture is dotted with Spanish, French, German, Greek, African, Asian and Middle Eastern influences. Sicilians have always been multicultural whether they believe it or not.

Perhaps I am an idealist but I can see many connections between different cultures and anthropologists see many more similarities than differences. It’s easy to see links between Sicily and Greece, Sicily and the middle east. I suspect Sicilian families and Indian families have many similarities in their approach to family life and respect for the elderly as in other Asian cultures. The literary journal Feile Festa edited by Frank Polizzi is dedicated to the connections between Ireland and Sicily.

The world is becoming a smaller, thanks to the connections between the cultures, if only everyone has the openness to remember we are all human beings with the desire to be connected to a community.

 

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For more reading about minister Cécile Kyenge and the hard time she’s been having see this article from The Guardian.

The ‘hen’s night’ Italian style

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I’ve always disliked the ardent silliness that goes on at pre-wedding ‘hens’ nights and bachelor parties. In Australia and the UK these night time facades in the past have resulted in cruel practical jokes and lewd conduct that is often regretted the morning after.

Thank goodness these types of parties have become a thing of the past. Over the past few years I’ve been to terribly fun and sophisticated dinner parties with cute themes and often hens and bachelors unite to celebrate together.

Now here in Italy there never used to be such celebrations but over the past few years it has become to celebrate the ‘addio a celibato/nubilato’ using the old model of ‘hens’ and ‘bachelors.’ So I’ve had to sit through dull dinners with happenings like the bride made to eat penis shaped food (pasta is quite popular), gifts of sex toys, dress ups, penis shaped cakes, strippers and truth or dare games. Yawn!

I somehow thought the Italian’s would take the concept and somehow make it their own instead of hashing out the same old cliche’.

After my most recent ‘hens’ night the future bride said it all on her FB updates over the night/next day saying: ‘I thought I had more serious friends/relatives … Those questions were so banal.’ Surely they could have come up with some thing more original. Thank goodness there was plenty of alcohol, a good DJ and Karaoke later on in the evening, at least the future bride had a good night, even if I found it all a little sad.

I’m sure my friend will make a radiant bride and hope to write about her with her permission after her wedding next week. Lucky the ‘hens’ party has nothing to do with the wedding!!

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Antipodean Endearments: Homesick for Australia

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Expansive Australian Sky in the Swan Valley, Western Australia.
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

I recently found an old diary of mine with a list of things I miss about my hometown Perth, Australia and concerns I had for myself as a new expat in a non english speaking country.

The list is nearly a decade old written when I first moved to Sicily and I am amazed at how naive it is, I certainly had a romanticized idea of Australia. Reading this list made me realise how homesickness is caused by an inability to let go, like all forms of depression or grief. Home is where I make it and it is contained within myself, it is no longer a place I write elegies for.

The main part of feeling homesick for me nowadays has to do with friends and family they are the main things I miss. I do my best to keep in touch thanks to blogging and social networks and if I feel particularly in need of hearing an Australian accent I surprise my friends with a phone call or Skype call.

In my diary entry I was being terribly honest and expressing real concerns about being an expat living in Italy so I thought I’d share.

Here is the full diary entry:

Coming back to my house in Sicily I write a list of the things I miss most about home in Perth, Australia.

● The expansive sky which makes up half the landscape, together with the flat stretch of the terrain, full of endless space and possibilities. This broadness in the landscape is echoed in the broad Australian accent, the relaxed life style and in the space to be yourself.

● The wild nature of the countryside, like an unconquered land: bare, sandy and endless in its vast and expansive nakedness.

● Listening to the radio in my car, the music I love.

● The books and bookshops I love to browse in.

● Sleepy Sunday afternoons listening to chamber music concerts followed by milky coffee in trendy cafés.

● Goofing around with my friends and my brother.

● The cooling sensation and freedom of walking bare foot in summer.

● The smell of summer mornings, crisp and cool. The smell of the baked earth which has cooled during the night like the aroma of an exotic new dish being roasted in the oven.

● The wild flowers, banksias, kangaroo paws, gum nuts, desert peas, wattle. The exciting alien Australian vegetation I have grown up with, which looks like something invented by a props master for a science fiction film from the nineteen sixties.

● The freedom of taking off in my car on wide easy streets, uncrowded by confusion and uninterrupted by traffic. The road which promises to distract you away from your problems by giving you the freedom you need in that uniquely expansive space which stretches out to the remote horizon.

● The flatness, the broad endless land. Seeing the Perth city lights in the distance, glowing in the night sky. The blue florescent incandescence from the tops of skyscrapers that mark the highest point in the C.B.D. They shine like halos of imaginary angels. In my memory the mirage of the city is so close, like reaching out for the end of the rainbow just out of grasp. Go a little faster, just around the corner and you will see the spectacular Xanadu, city of light, floating above the river, luminous in the dark sky like ghostly sepia shadows in old photos.

● I miss the freedom of feeling like myself. Here I am full of limitations because of my lack of control over the language, myself and this place.

● I miss the multicultural nature of Australia; eating Asian food, enjoying the freedom of having Greek, Italian, Spanish, Indian and African friends. Sicily is painfully mono-cultural with a threatening racist underbelly.

There are changes in me here. I am becoming more introverted, shy and I have no friends like me.

Here I have no tongue. I am learning half a language. In my head there is nothing but half sentences, half ideas, badly expressed. I cannot express myself as I am used to, something that I value with all that I am. It’s as if I’m losing half my identity.

My tongue is broken into small segments like a piece from the once uniform jigsaw of the one universal language represented in the Bible by the story of Babel. When man’s tower of pride tried to surpass heaven, the language shattered into fragments Failing in its endeavour to transcend god the edifice fell to the earth and the once united language became jumbled. Thus the tongues of the world were created, each piece of the tower smashing the languages and dispersing them throughout the globe.

I have a faded memory of this once universal language, yet when I try to speak it the holes in my memory are so great that I only recall small simple words which are insufficient to express the emotions, opinions and memories in my mind. This broken language I own is only enough to express my basic needs, trapping me within myself rather than sending me out into the world of words and expression.

One day, feeling homesick, I start to write, deciding the beginning of my story is the discovery of what Sicily is for me, of my place, or lack of place, within it. I want to write about what Sicily means to me, apart from the alienation, frustration, suffocation, guilt and my struggle with my desperate desire to go home.

Sicily is where part of my origins are, but it isn’t where I want to stay forever. It is a forgotten place, alien to me. My desire to explore it is strong, but I’m tired and ready to leave behind the past to create my own stories instead of hearing other people’s. I resolve to explore everything that I see here, even the ugliness and despair. There is the great beauty here but there is also great ugliness and danger in Sicily too.

Every time I’m back at home in Perth Western Australia I always discover endless possibilities and ideas so much so that I am beginning to believe it is the font of my creativity. Yet when I travel back to Sicily it is with a surreal sense of whimsy. I know how life in Sicily is but when I travel back from Australia it’s like I’ve forgotten everything and I’m making my maiden voyage .

Perhaps Sicily really is the island that robbed Ulysses of ten years on his journey home to Ithaca and I too am under the influence of the same ancient magic spell.

I am tantalised by the conversations of Italian jet setters at Dubai and Bangkok. Their smooth Italian dialogue seduces me and makes me wonder if I’ve been mistaken about Sicily. Whether I’ve missed something more valuable or elusive, a more profound element, like I need to descend deeper into its heart.

I wonder if I’ll find that Sicily has changed as I always find Australia in constant evolution, transforming itself into new suburbs and developments. I want Sicily to be more like Australia. I want to fit easier into its arms, rather than feeling so awkward, isolated and stifled.

Unwilling Expat

Now that I got it all off my chest why not crave something more delicious here: http://wp.me/p2pBNK-4A

and top ten of things I miss here and what I’m going to do to make up for all this moping!!

Market time in Sicily

One thing I love about living here in Sicily (and in Italy in general) is the Italian flair for the pointless public holiday (or rather a day off for any reason under the sun) and their ability to celebrate these with open air markets filled with a whole lot of crap and bargain for those willing to dig.

For example each town gets a day off during the year to celebrate their patron saint filled with processions and market day. The result is reasonably big towns who close off their main streets and fill them with endless stalls filled with every product possible (really from clothing, electrical appliances, live animals, food etc.)

In our neck of the woods in the Province of Messina in October there is the festa at Capo d’orlando and then in November at Sant’Agata. These two festivities create wonderful opportunities for people to stock up on winter clothing, buy Christmas presents in the pre-Christmas period and for the sly shopper buy some good-looking stuff without spending too much.

To be honest there is a lot of tacky stuff but the trick is to stick to the stalls set up by people who actually have real shops and avoid the dodgy Chinese lantern discount shops that have popped up all around Italy filled with cheap and nasty stuff.

Capo d'Orlando festa della Madonna

I think there is a real skill in market shopping, hunting down quality for a good price and badgering stall owners for a better price is fun (I managed to get a handbag at half price, because I threatened to go to the next stall who I said were willing to give it to me for my price!!)

 

 

Festa Capo d'orlando

Apart from this my little boy loves the markets as they are filled with so many different things to see, he gets home totally exhausted but seeing his eyes light up is worth it.

So bring on the markets!

Balloons at the festa

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