Sicilian Sisters Travel: an interview

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Tourism in Sicily is an exciting and constantly developing industry to be involved in with many new companies coming up with new ways in which to experience the island.

Recently one exciting new company has been founded by two Sicilian sisters born in Sicily. Francesca and Giovanna have returned to their island home after several years of education and work in the USA they have returned to help people discover their beloved homeland.

Sicilian Sisters is an online travel boutique which offers dream vacations to Sicily and Italy. Based on a unique connection to the island, the two sisters and best friends want to share the beauty of their heritage to the rest of the world.

Francesca and Giovanna kindly agreed to answer a few questions in a recent interview:

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Tell us about Sicilian Sisters Travel. How did it come about and what’s your philosophy about Sicily?

We were born and raised in Sicily. Our Papa’ is Sicilian, our Mamma Sicilian-American.We were born in a bi-cultural, multilingual home. This defined immediately the course and rest of our lives. We welcomed and entertained international visitors in our home in Sicily from an early age and traveled often to the USA and around the world to visit family and friends. 

In 1997, we moved to the USA to pursue higher education and spent 18 years there. Until this year (2016) when, longing to indulge in the beauty and slow paced lifestyle of our beautiful native island (Sicily), we decided to move back to our home here. Whether we had planned or not, it was always our pleasure to advice, suggest, accompany visitors around our island and slowly throughout all of Italy. 

Travel is in our DNA and through the years, we have been fortunate and grateful to be able to travel the world, develop a sensibility towards the needs of the international traveler, learn a few languages and expand our portfolio of connections.

We are delighted, honored and truly happy to be able to share our love, passion and knowledge of all that our island and country can offer to the senses of all embracing visitors!    

What services do you offer?

We can work with clients in a number of ways:  you can either join one of our group tours….or we can design a journey especially crafted for you, your family, business, etc…..or if you have already booked a few services (for example flights and hotels) we can assist in the planning of all other additional travel services such as cooking classes, wine tastings, Italian language courses, private guides, entrance tickets, train tickets, lunches, dinners, pastry demonstrations, tastings, cycling, sports, wellness experiences…..we are really creative and flexible and can assist really in anything related to travel in Sicily and Italy to match your exact wishes and desires and budget.  

Why should someone come to Sicily for their holiday?

Many people know or have traveled to Italy already – and though it’s a country of immense beauty, of poets, artists, musicians, ideal for foodies and wine lovers as well as scholars of the expressive Italian language and it will always offer peculiar experiences to its visitors (….and we can help you in the design and planning of your first time or a returning journey to Italy by the way with our connections throughout the boot)……we were born and raised in Sicily, it’s our native island and it has been a personal commitment through our entire lives to simply share the most beautiful and unique layers of our island with others.

We believe that Sicily is the “island of a thousand scents and colors.”  It is an island whose complex and extraordinary natural beauty mixed with a multitude of dialects and traces left from many civilizations has created a kaleidoscopic culture, people, history, language and cuisine.

Our island functions on “island time” and to best understand it, we always recommend that you have a different “tempo” when you come here to allow yourself to be immersed in its layers, to get a glimpse of a powerful history, to have your palates ignited with a “gusto” developed over centuries and your eyes filled with colors and senses inebriated by natural scents such as jasmine, orange blossom, pistachio, honey, pomegranate, prickly pears….

To travel to Sicily means to be exposed to Sicilian hospitality and generosity, to live a few days like Sicilian kings and queens did in extraordinary noble palaces or villas, to soak in the Sicilian sun and sea, and lavishly be reminded of the meaning and significance of eating well and feasting together around the dinner table, to learn about a rich archaeological and cultural history and much much more….

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What are best things to do in Sicily in each season? Could you break it down for us, what should we be doing in a visit in the summer, fall, winter and spring?

We will answer this question in reverse.

Sicilian summer lasts from about May through October so in these months, we certainly recommend planning a vacation that focuses on a location by the sea in one of the numerous stunning beaches around the island or in its surrounding islands (Aeolian, Aegadian, Pelagian, Pantelleria) – and intertwine cultural as well as other fun experiences.   

In our late fall (October and November) – you will certainly enjoy partaking in vineyards visits, wine tastings, cooking classes, pastry demonstrations and Italian language courses perhaps….always a must are cultural highlights as well.

In winter and spring….slower tourist season here, you would enjoy “living like a local,” travel is cheaper, the weather still so pleasant – the perfect time to enjoy all of the above at slower pace, with tourist attractions less crowded.  

What is your own personal favorite site to visit?

This is a very difficult and nearly impossible question to answer because we appreciate all seasons and all destinations for their uniqueness and diversity……but if we had to highlight a few “musts” while in Sicily…..you must visit at least once in your lifetime:  Taormina, the Baroque corner in South Eastern Sicily (Modica, Noto, Ragusa, Scicli, etc.), you must taste pastries and street food in Catania, you may enjoy a romantic sunset walk in the idyllic ancient city of Ortigia, also salute Mount Etna, learn about the history of Sicilian Kings and Queens in Palermo, visit the magnificent Valley of Temples in Agrigento, deepen your knowledge of Sicilian wines and cuisine, and take a few extra days to explore the Aeolian Islands – one of our favorite destinations in the whole world. 

What is your favorite taste of Sicily?

This is another very difficult question because our Papa’ was a Chef in the USA and our Mamma is an incredible cook…..we love fresh seafood prepared in a number ways, we love eggplants and fresh basil, tomato sauce made with Pomodori from Pachino, we enjoy a good glass of Nero d’Avola or Shiraz or dessert wines like Zibbibbo and Passito, we adore ricotta and pistachio and honey, we love almond or lemon or prickly pear “granita” (Sicilian ice) for breakfast in the summer. 

What is your favorite off the beaten track destination or experience?

We love to share the picturesque fishing village where our maternal grandparents were born: Brucoli.  It is literally a three street village but so restorative for a day out:  enjoying some time at the beach….lunch in one of the few delicious seafood restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean Sea….. a refreshing mid afternoon granita…..and an aperitivo by the water at night………….Mt Etna at a distance, the entire Bay of Catania before your eyes. It is a very simple, tranquil yet idyllic destination.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

Francesca, tell us about ‘My Sicily’ …

In 2012, my first book “My Sicily” (255 pages) was published in the USA.  It is written in English with a few Sicilian proverbs, extracts of language.  It was a travel memoir where I intertwined personal childhood memories and cultural, culinary, identity, linguistic notes on my favorite places around the island.  Sicily is not mine, it belongs to the world and all those curious or interested in learning more about our culture and island….and to all the sons and daughters of Sicilian immigrants worldwide.  I entitled the book “My Sicily” because I narrate “my” personal reflections as I associate them with each individual place.  Thanks to the book, I enjoyed traveling across the USA on a 55 stop book tour, was invited at the Sicilian Festival in San Diego, received two Sicilian Literary Awards (in 2007 and 2013), met extraordinary people and learned even more about Sicilian culture and identity in the USA.  During the journey, I launched a blog to document it and through the years it has grown to welcome almost 39,000 followers worldwide who follow my writings and literary experiences.  I am so grateful.  My sister who has a passion for photography and her own business (https://giovannamignosa.smugmug.com/) designed the book cover, map of Sicily and entire book. There are a few literary projects brewing at the moment, but I can’t reveal them just yet. I invite anyone interested to follow my facebook page:  Francesca Mignosa Author or my blog  https://francescamignosa.wordpress.com  

How would you describe Sicily in one sentence ….

“Sicily is the island of a thousand scents and colors” (My Sicily, 2012) when you think you know all of them….its charisma will show you a few more….we look forward to sharing and discovering more with all of you.  Grazie.   

We invite you to visit our website   www.siciliansisterstravel.com and our Facebook page:  Sicilian Sisters Travel.        

You can also email us at siciliansisterstravel@gmail.com 

Thanks so much to these charming Sicilian Sisters for finding the time to talk to Sicily Inside and Out.

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Images c/o Sicilian Sisters, Sicily Inside and Out library, Flickr and Sicilian houses image from Tibor Janosi Mozes 

How to explore Sicilian towns

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When people come to Sicily they tend to go along the well followed tourist road, sticking to places like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù which are all beautiful and worthwhile but the island can offer so many more unique experiences.

I always advise people to go and visit a smaller town, whether it be tracking down the village where long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or simply hiring a car for a day and heading up into the mountains, along the coast or into the interior of the island. There are literally hundreds of smaller towns to see. In the province of Messina alone there are 108 towns each with their own unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.

Small towns aren’t going to be as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities but visiting them will give you a sense of the real colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.

You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily and with GPS technology it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Bring a phrasebook

Once you get out of the tourist areas the frequency of spoken English disappears so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks will make you believe you will be hearing mostly Sicilian dialect, but the reality is most people are well versed in Italian although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent. Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language they will do everything to accommodate you, as they are proud of their town and will do anything to show it off.

 Ionian Coastline

Get there early

Get going early as most towns tend to slow down after midday and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time to have breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant which most cafe’s/bar offer regularly) and that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be doing in their town. Bar owners are fonts of great local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilian’s freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can’t go wrong by simply asking.

Chiesa Madre, Sinagra

 Start with the churches

The best place to see traditional Sicilian art is in Sicilian churches, the Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship and so you will literally find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings.

Even the most run down looking church will give you the best surprises. Most churches are open throughout the day, they don’t cost you anything and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services and you are respectful and don’t take too many photo’s especially of the altar. If you are feeling generous you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes which usually go to the upkeep of the church.

Castello Sinagra

 Castles and palaces

Every town with either has a Castle/Fortress (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palace (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and most will be opened to the public. They are always fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history. Sicilian small town are places with many centuries of history, the island has been inhabited since prehistoric times so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again be sure to ask the locals for advice.

Small town Sicily

 By foot

The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards. If you are visiting a mountain town this walk with mean hiking up, discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carved out of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savour the moment.

 

Feste, Sagre and Market time

If you want to see a Sicilian paese with it’s best face on, then you must visit when there is a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector which is celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.

Sicilian’s are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their own local products, throughout the year each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euro’s you can often enjoy a full meal. There are food festivals dedicated to everything from ice cream, to pistachio’s, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges, the list is endless. Most are advertised through large posters fastened to walls on the side of the road or on billboards and above all by word of mouth. So if you see one be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.

The market day tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and each town has its own open-air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets, there can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort even if you simply grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.

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 Eat local

Food is never a problem in Sicily, even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta you will still be able to ask them to make up a quick panino and deli lunch which you can wash down with a beer or wine easily available from the store.

If you are shrewd enough to follow my advice and asked the local barista where you should go for lunch you would already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal.

Generally if you want to taste fresh local fare the best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family run restaurant) or Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) rather than a Ristorante (restaurant) which will charge you more and give you less.

 

Tourist Information

Each small town has a local tourist information office which is usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight. The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centres so they can give you in-depth information about the surrounding areas too as things like web pages and online information is hard to come by.

Sinagra from Castello

There is no reason not to go forth and explore.

Sicily has had a bad reputation in the past but if you use the same level of caution you usually use while travelling overseas there is no reason to be afraid. Keep in mind things like controlling your change while shopping so you don’t get short-changed, don’t leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car, keep valuables either at home or close to your person, don’t take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets. Don’t be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner and you will become a target for a mugger or tourist fraud.

Generally, avoid run-down neighbourhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night, if you don’t see people around it means you shouldn’t be there either and simply be aware of any potential danger.

These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere around the world, Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.

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Dividing Sicily into bitesize pieces

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There are many ways of exploring Sicily, from visiting the bigger cities and tourist centres, food and winery tours or seeing the major historical sites from Greek temples to endless museums.

Logistically moving around Sicily is difficult simply because of the mountainous landscape, bad infrastructure, lack of reliable public transport and really confusing or absent signage. Rather than attempting to see the entire island in one weekend (which I assure you is impossible), the best thing to do is simply break the island into smaller pieces and explore a smaller part of it.

It is easy to hire a car from any major airport and together with a reliable GPS, a guidebook, a little research and some Italian, you can easily negotiate yourself around a particular area.

One trip or vacation to a concentrated part of the island is a perfect way to soak up the culture and colours associated with each of the nine different provinces (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento and Trapani.)

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Western Sicily  for example includes Trapani, Marsala and basically everything west of Palermo from Castellammare del Golfo around to the Aegadian islands, down the coast to Mazara del Vallo, if you want to be particularly challenged you can make it down as far as Agrigento (but I think Agriento deserves more time to be savoured and is best to be grouped together with central Sicily).

central-sicily

Sicily can be sliced down the middle from Palermo into its heart to Piazza Armerina, Enna, Caltanissetta down to Agrigento which is filled with much history, archaeological sites and festivities during the year.

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Then there is North Eastern Sicily which can be done by car from Palermo along the coast towards Messina and can include visits to places like Cefalù, the Aeolian Islands, many small coastal and mountain towns around to Messina and the resort town of Taormina.

If you decide to arrive at Catania airport you can start from there and explore along the coastline as there are many fascinating fishing villages and resorts all the way down to Siracusa and Ragusa.

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A few days to explore the Val di Noto towns inland from Catania will give you the chance to experience the eight Baroque treasures of south-eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and are filled with ostentatious architecture, breathtaking scenery and equally rich culinary landscape to taste.

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From Catania it is easy to catch the Circumetnea a historic railway which takes you leisurely around the base of the Mount Etna around to the picturesque seaside town of Riposto. From Catania airport it is simple to explore Etna itself and the endless small towns near and around the Mount Etna regional park, this area also boasts world-class wineries, restaurants, historical sites endless farm stay or luxury bed and breakfasts, spas and a golf course. 

Sicily is a multifaceted place with endless things to explore, simply do some research into whatever you may be interested in and see if you can explore the island through your hobbies and passions.

There is something for everyone Sicily is a paradise for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, snorkelling/diving and windsurfing.

Sicily boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, if your family is originally from Sicily you can visit the town of your origins, foodies will have endless things to taste with a succession of Sagra food festivals throughout the year and the island has some of the best wine in the world.

There are literary parks to explore Sicily through its greatest artists, if you are after a luxury holiday there are many five star hotels and resorts, you can take a helicopter ride around the island, sail around the coast and hop around the surrounding islands, take archaeological tours around the most well preserved Greek temples outside of Magna Grecia, immerse yourself in the thousands of museums, palaces, castles, markets, religious or food festivals, squares, do an inspector Montalbano, Mafia or Caravaggio inspired tour.

The possibilities are endless simply break off a piece of Sicily and have a taste.

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Without winter there wouldn’t be a summer

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November in Sicily

People often avoid the island of the sun in the winter months, preferring to bathe themselves in the sunshine and sea during the warmer months. But delving into Sicily in autumn/winter is a more authentic and rich experience.

The first of November begins with All souls day, a celebration dotted with colourful traditions in which the locals dedicate themselves to honour their ancestors, mostly a religious holiday the cemeteries are beautifully decorated and chrysanthemums are sold by the truckloads on the side of the road. It may seem a morbid time to visit, but actually, if you are intending to do any genealogical research into any Sicilian roots, the cemeteries are filled with people and you may bump into long-lost family members visiting dearly departed relatives.

November in Sicily is punctuated by warm sunny days and rainy dull ones, which never last too long. So when it does rain it’s the perfect time to dedicate yourself to the hundreds of museums, galleries and churches throughout the island. Also, the religion of food becomes the central focus of most Siculu natives at this time of year, as always.

All the tourists have gone home and so at times it will feel like you have the island to yourself. It is a perfect time to dedicate to seeing the major historical attractions which are much less crowded, less expensive and infinitely more pleasant in the cooler weather (even if opening hours may change, some sites open only in the morning simply because the days are shorter). The archaeological sites are hellish in the summer months, the islands are sweaty and humid. But you can still do the usual day trips and everything has a different character when there is no crowd of tourists. Taormina in the winter is even more charming and filled with locals, there is a winter Opera performance program as rich as the summer one. While provinces like Agrigento, Syracuse and Enna are desert-like in the summer, in November they are teaming with local colour, religious celebrations, traditions and delicacies to discover. Visiting the Val dei Tempi, Val di Noto Baroque towns and the Villa Romana del Casale without busloads of tourists in town is absolute heaven. And on the first Sunday of each month entrance is free.

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St Martin’s wine and sagre

On the 11th of November, as the saying goes, ‘Per San Martino ogni musto diventa vino’, for Saint Martin’s day all juice becomes wine.

Throughout Sicily and the Italian peninsula, the patron saint of wine, San Martino’s feast day is spent tasting the vino novello and eating roasted chestnuts.

According to the legend, San Martino helped a poor drunkard and consequently his feast day is celebrated freely by all lovers of wine. Bizarrely he is also the patron saint of cornuti or cuckolded husbands and wives.

Saint Martin was an early Christian martyr, a Roman soldier converted to Christianity by a unique encounter with God. The most famous story from his life occurred during a harsh winter when arriving in a small town after finishing his military duties he met a destitute man dying of cold. Others had simply passed him by, but Saint Martin wanted to help the needy man. Martin was poor himself. The only possession he had was a cape which he used to shield himself from the cold. The saint gave the cape to the impoverished man and continued his journey, partially unclothed.

Later during the night, Saint Martin dreamt of the man whom he had helped and recognised the man as God in disguise, who was testing him. From that moment Saint Martin promised God that he would lay down his sword to follow a religious life. Soon after, he left the army to be baptised a Christian and spent the rest of his life helping poverty-stricken people.

Saint Martin’s service the poor man also led to his first official miracle, known as the week of Saint Martin. It is a week of fine, warm weather beginning on his feast day on the 11th of November. The respite in the weather is said to have occurred in order to keep St Martin from freezing to death during his journey after he was left without his cape. Today the break from winter leads to celebrations and the consumption of new wine that this is so closely associated with this saint.

The miracle of Saint Martin’s summer is a welcome reprieve during the harsh Sicilian winter. It is anticipated every year as a celebration of hope with a little decadence. With abundant food festivals dedicated to wine tasting and other local delicacies at this time of year. There are sagras advertised in the local press which are dedicated to products such as porcini mushrooms, porchetta (spit roasted pork), salami, pork, chestnuts, wine, grappa and at Modica in the province of Syracuse celebrates their ancient Aztec Chocolate in early December. In the lead up to Christmas, there are several re-enactment celebrations of the birth of Jesus from the bible in the form of Nativity performances and exhibitions dedicated to the ancient art of model making (Acireale/Caltagirone) and most major cities have the usual Mercatini di Natale Christmas markets.

Mistretta

Shopping and Saints

The harsh winters so common in the Sicily of last century have seemed to disappear, over the past decade, the snow comes intermittently and unexpectedly to the main cities. While the snow season on Mount Etna is usually abundant and perfect for the lovers of winter sports.

With the Christmas season is around the corner, the shopping is in full swing Sicily boasts many of the largest shopping complexes in the Mediterranean. Including Sicily Fashion Village near Enna offers a special shuttle service from Palermo to offer shoppers the opportunity to shop from its discount outlet village which houses more than 100 prestigious brands and boutiques. Auchan Porte di Catania in the city centre is a dedicated space for the whole family, where relaxation, shopping and entertainment come together to give you a unique experience with 150 shops with the most glamorous brands of clothing and accessories. Further out-of-town from Catania there is Etnapolis with 120 shops, the largest shopping centre in the whole of Southern Italy and also includes a 12 screen Warner Village cinema, perfect to catch up on the latest Christmas movies (the widely popular Cinepannettone comedy genre.) I Portali is a very prestigious and spacious shopping centre in Catania which houses over 100 stores from the major Italian designer houses. The Forum Palermo is a shopping centre dedicated to luxury items featuring premium Italian and international brands, designer shops and boutiques.

Apart from the pagan and frivolous pursuits, there are the saints who guide Sicilians through the winter with their celebrations filled with suggestive processions and preparations of local fare and colour. Two of the biggest Saint festivals in Sicily are Santa Lucia (Syracuse) and St Agata (Catania). Saint Lucy a virgin martyr was born in Syracuse and her relics and statue are a valuable part of the cities traditions and her feast an amazing celebration to attend.

From the 13th of December to the 20th the city of Siracuse is filled with colour, fireworks, marching bands, sweets and dishes who celebrate the life and miracles of this great Sicilian saint. Saint Agata has saved Catania several times from being destroyed by the Mount Etna volcano and she is adored by the Catanese who celebrate her blessings with elaborate baroque celebrations from the 3rd to the 5th of February every year. Like St Lucy Agata was born in Sicily and is an important figure in the island’s history and mythology.

Of course, Christmas celebrations or Natale is also a wonderful excuse to visit Sicily. Apart from the use of the Nativity as a form of decoration, Christmas markets and traditional folk music concerts, there is an immense dedication to a grand feast of delicacies to enjoy. Not only do Italian’s celebrate Christmas with an extensive banquet but there is also the New Years Eve Cenone which stuffs you with so much food you don’t want to eat for another year.

After recovering from the festive season comes Carnevale in Italy which is an exorbitant time of the year, beginning in early February and it is a seriously big masquerade party filled with wine, fun, and jokes. Traditionally it was a kind of exorcism of decadence before the period of Lent which was forty days of fasting before Easter. The result is many elaborate celebrations, parades, floats and costumes throughout Italy. The most famous Carnival celebrations in Italy are of course Venice and Viareggio but Acireale in the province is famous for its papier-mâché artists designs and Sciaccia in the province of Agrigento is considered the most ancient Carnevale celebration in Italy.

So even if winter can be a bit of a bleak time of the year in the mountain villages of Sicily. The intermittent rain and hail are interrupted by tiny specks of sunshine quickly smudged out by the billowing charcoal clouds. There are still many moments of warm decadence to make a winter visit worthwhile.

During the blackbird days, the coldest days of the year, it is easy to crave the summer but there are many things to help you savour the winter.

After the giornate dello merlo, the last days of January comes the Candelora which is a kind of Sicilian groundhog day. We shall watch on the second of February, if it rains the whole day through then the spring is just around the corner and if the sun shines the snow will come and bring us another forty days of winter and lead to still more sipping of warmed wine or grappa liquor, an apt way of experiencing a Sicilian winter.

 

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Exploring Taormina in five photos: Enjoying the view

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

As much as I love Taormina I never get the chance to experience it is as I wish. We are always in a rush visiting with guests, walking up and down the main streets and doing souvenir shopping as that’s what all tourists want to do.

If you have time you should be doing things like catching the train along the coast from Messina, (here in this photo we see the autostrada leading along the coast towards Messina) then take the cable car up from Mazzarò on the coast.
(Even if it is temporarily out of action thanks to a minor landslide caused by last weeks torrential rains, but it should be functioning again for next summer)

Then there are the towns of Giardini Naxos down below and Castelmola above Taormina to explore.

I’d stay in one of the many historical houses turned B&B, my favourite being Casa Cuseni the house inherited by Daphne Phelps in 1947, built by her Uncle the British painter Robert Kitson. The house and its famous artistic guests were the inspiration for Daphne’s book, A house in Sicily.

Please do wander around the side streets, get lost in the gardens, hidden art galleries. Stop to devour a sumptuous pizza, arancini rice balls or seafood meal from a secret little trattoria.

Defiantly watch a show at the Greek amphitheatre (there is everything from contemporary music to opera) and end your stay with a cocktail out on the balcony watching the sunset from an exclusive restaurant or club.

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Exploring Taormina in five photos: Hiding from tourists

Hiding from the tourists

Even if you hide from the tourists they seem to pop out from everywhere at Taormina.

It’s great to close your eyes, block them out and imagine no one is around.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have the place to yourself, enjoy that Picasso exhibition at the suggestive Palazzo Corvaja in calm and serenity.

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Exploring Taormina in five photos: Duomo

Duomo Taormina

It is impossible to take photo’s during the day at Taormina, someone is always in your shot no matter what perspective you take it from. There is nothing you can do about it, you need to live with random people in your shot. Such is the curse of living in such a popular tourist destination, but sometimes the results are surprising.

I like this colourfully dressed woman waiting her turn to drink at the water fountain out in front of the Duomo of Taormina, I think she gives the photo a nice added bit of colour and those two girls walking past remind us we were in the middle of a particularly warm summer afternoon.

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Exploring Taormina in five photos: Bar Etna

Pasticceria Etna at Taormina

I always look out for locals in Taormina, whether they are the shop-keepers, delivery guys, chefs and waiters taking five minutes to smoke a cigarette and occasionally sitting down for a coffee.

My husband thinks I snapped two foreigners here at the suggestive Bar Etna, but they were speaking Italian and were distinctly un-rushed and comfortable with their surroundings.

At least they were Italian.

What do you think, did I get lucky or are these wealthy American’s, Germans or any other array of foreigners visiting …

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Exploring Taormina in five photos: Santa Caterina

Thanks to Pip from Sustainability Soapbox for nominating me to do the five photos/five stories challenge.

I’ll be sharing five images from Sicily with particular stories attached to them.

This summer I found myself visiting Taormina twice after having two different groups of guests to visit who both expressed a desire to see this famous resort town in the province of Messina. I love this magical Sicilian town but it is a bit of a hassle to visit in the summer as it is filled with tourists, the heat is tremendous, it is terribly expensive and touristy which means a visit isn’t going to be an authentic Italian experience really as there are more foreigners in town than locals.

So I’d like to explore the theme of Taormina beyond the tourists.

Yes, I managed to see something of the authentic city behind all the foreign visitors.

It seems timely to be writing about Taormina after a couple of days of torrential rain flooded the streets of the town last week. I imagine as everything is drying out in the forecasted sunshine the locals will be relieved for a short respite from the visitors.

Chiesa Santa Caterina di Alessandria at Taormina

I am gradually falling in love with Sicilian Saints and so the Church of Santa Caterina di Alessandria at Taormina is my favourite, if only for it’s dedication to this early Christian martyr.
Saint Catherine was one of the most popular saints of the
Middle Ages and is considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group of fourteen saints in heaven who willingly intercede for the faithful. St Catherine is the inspiration behind many beautiful prayers, poems and songs.
St Catherine was tortured on a spiked wheel by Emperor Maximian (305–313) and is often depicted with the wheel of her suffering hanging around her neck as a pendant on a chain and the head of the emperor under feet with the sword that was used to decapitate her in hand, as you can see here above the entrance of the church, which is one of the first you meet while walking down the main street in the historic centre.

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Sicilian Impressions: Taormina

Today Taormina is a major tourist Mecca in Sicily but it was once a place of decadence attracting many artists, writers and bohemians alike, inspired by its isolation, beauty and ancient quality.

In amongst the gaudy tourist stores there are many small artist studios and speciality stores which reflect the creativity and artistry of Sicilians, they are what draw me back here.

Taormina art studios

Taormina Art studio

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Hope you had a good summer …

I think I may have inadvertently led people to believe I had a wonderful summer lazing around the beach and traveling around Sicily.

In reality I had a terrible summer, every time I tried to go to the beach it was friggin freezing and in August my mother in law spent the month in hospital at Taormina which meant I was helping out at my in-laws, taking 2 hour stomach churning car trips back and forth through the mountains to relieve my sister in-laws who stayed in hospital with my husband’s mother (trust me you don’t ever want to be left along in a Sicilian hospital!)

So summer was a hazy mirage of heat, family obligations and late night sleeplessness to get through writing deadlines.

I did manage to snap a few pics which will give you a sense of my summer on the road, it is nothing like last year (2013 was great with visitors and trips to Etna and Taormina). Here is what my summer looked like:

 

Road from the mountains to Taormina

 

The road back and forth going from Montalbano, Linguaglossa, Moio Alcantara, Giardini Naxos to Taormina hospital.

 

Traffic near Giardini

Hot August Summer traffic outside of Giardini Naxos.

Giardini Naxos, Messina

 

Giardini Naxos, empty restaurant, Messina

 

Where have all the tourists gone? The economic crisis makes itself felt in the seaside resort of Giardini.

 

Balconies at Giardini Naxos, Messna

 

Empty summer streets at Giardini Naxos,ME

 

Sicilians in their balconies and deserted streets at Giardini.

 

Taormina hospital near Giardini Naxos, ME

The crumbling and utterly depressing Taormina hospital which is far, far away from touristy Taormina.

True old fashioned Sicilian’s don’t go to Taormina for their holidays they get treated for cancer at Taormina hospital. They don’t go to Acireale for Carnivale they go there to buy second-hand cars in the acres of car yards.

This summer I became a true Sicilian, forgot about vacation time, rolled up my sleeves without complaining and did what was needed. Their tenacity is to be admired. These Sicilians are certainly tough but they never really truly enjoy their own island, which gives them a melancholic quality and why I hope never to be one hundred percent Sicilian.

 

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Italian festivals and theaters for opera lovers

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Image from Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/michalo/16159457245/sizes/l

Apart from the history, architecture and historical sights to see in Italy there are endless opportunities to experience the products of its thriving culture. So many people travel to Italy and simply tick off the main tourist sites off the bucket list. Colosseum, check, Ponte Vecchio, Check, Leaning tower of Pisa, Check,

Instead of being overwhelmed by the blur of a whirlwind tour of Italy why not visit some exceptional arts festivals and theaters which show off the best Italy has to offer?

To be honest this list of suggestions is very much biased towards the world of classical music but to be honest that’s what Italy does best (and also Sicily as Unwilling Expat is a Sicilian based blog.)

Visiting an Italian festival will give you the best of an Italian city, from a stunning setting, access to fine local products and above all performances which will stay in your heart forever.

 

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Photo Credit: gnuckx via Compfight cc

Taormina (Greek Theatre), Sicilia

 There are events throughout the year in Taormina, Sicily from art exhibitions, classical music concerts, opera, contemporary music and opera performances which are hosted either in the open air Greek amphitheater in the summer or the Cine Theatre San Giorgio in the centre of this mecca of tourism in Sicily.

This year the Taorminafest has been the victim of funding cuts which has resulted in the cancellation of some contemporary music concerts but the core events are held safe by locals and private sponsors.

Taormina is a tourist mecca and your visit will be enriched by the experience of an opera set in one of the most iconic open air theaters in the world.

Soundscape: composition and performance exchange, Lombardia

 A unique festival that combines elements of new music, composition, collaborations, workshops, master classes, composers in residence, students ,conferences and workshops to create a vibrant festival filled with creativity.

All in the setting of Maccagno on Lago Maggiore, south of the Swiss border in the Italian Alps, every summer since 2005.

Arena di Verona

 The Arena di Verona Opera Festival,is a focal point for opera lovers all over the world. From June to September every year the best opera singers from Italy and all over the world perform sumptuous productions by the best international artists and living legends like Franco Zafarelli, in the unforgettable ancient amphitheater of Verona.

The program usually includes many of Verdi’s most famous operas. In 2014 for example the opera going public enjoyed grand productions of Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera, Aida, Bizet’s Carmen, Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Orff’s Carmine Burana, Puccini’s Turandot and Madama Butterfly.

Verona is a breathtaking experience and there are tickets available online for all budgets. Be sure to avoid scalpers as you can’t see the shows with fake tickets. And for those sitting on the stone steps be sure to take a blow up air cushion to sit on, to avoid having to rent one during the night, as opera’s are long affairs and you need to be comfortable.

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Classical Greek theatre at Syracuse, Sicily

 The International institute of Ancient Drama hosts a season of classics from ancient Greek theatre in the suggestive ruins of the natural amphitheater of Syracuse in Sicily.

The works are presented are from the classical Greek canon and are presented in the original languages or in Italian with traditional Greek masks and choruses and which attract the best actors in Italy.

A trip to the classical Greek theatre at Syracuse is like stepping back through time and the setting springtime sun is a true spectacle.

Be sure to pack a warm coat for the evening, a trusty comfy blow up cushion, sunscreen and a big bottle of water as the early spring (May-July) at Syracuse can be harsh.

Spoleto Festival, Umbria

The Spoleto Festival (festival di due mondi) is a mega arts gathering which happens every year around June/July in Umbria northern Italy. It has an amazing range of events from dance, theatre, classical and light music, jazz, visual arts, international and Italian performing arts groups and a literature festival. Spoleto Festival hosts the best of the Italian and European arts industry in a cavalcade of every possible type of creative expression.

Torre del Lago, Toscana

The Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago in Tuscany in the province of Lucca is the birth place of composer Giacomo Puccini and the inspiration behind this event.

Every July and August in the places in which Puccini grew up in, lived and spent his vacations, hosts a series of opera productions.

The operas are staged in an amazing open aired 3,400 seat theatre along the lake in front of the summer house of the composer which has now been turned into a museum.

Puccini composed his most famous operas at Torre del Lago including Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La Fanciulla del West (1910), La Rondine (1917) and Il Trittico (1918).

Every year the performance program celebrates the best known works of the Italian opera composer and is dedicated to creating new productions of his work.

Verdi Festival, Emilia Romagna

 The Verdi Festival is another one for lover’s of Italian opera, dedicated to possibly the greatest and most prolific Italian composer of all time. The festival is hosted in the medieval city of Parma in the heart of Emilia Romagna.

Inspired by the music and art of Giuseppe Verdi the event includes full productions of his works as well as concert performances, chamber music, special talks, masterclasses, concert performances dedicated to Verdi’s arias and the inspiration behind him.

The Festival occurs in early Autumn (October) which gives the city of Parma a chance to show off its Autumnal colours amongst the creations of Verdi’s immortal genius.

Jazz Festival in Umbria

Umbria Jazz is a must for lovers of contemporary Jazz music.

Hosted by the University city of Perugia in Umbria it is one of the longest running festivals in Italy and attracts musicians from all around the world. The program is easily downloaded every year and there are many free concerts held in the beautiful historical centre of this beautiful City in early July every year.

The Berkley college of music also hosts a summer school as part of the Umbria Jazz Clinic. The festival combines fine music, food and wine to create a carnival like atmosphere.

Local restaurants, performance venues and theaters host intimate concerts with artists from Italy and around the world.

There is a vibrant series of outdoor concerts from R&B, jazz piano, big bands and singers.

In recent years Umbria Jazz has begun to host events in the winter too, so the music continues throughout the year.

Teatro Massimo, Sicily

 Teatro Massimo, Palermo is known as the ‘la Scala’ of the South and is the premier historical theatre of Sicily.

A visit to Palermo is never complete without a tour of the architectural splendor of this building. The performance season begins in early February and includes a mouthwatering array of orchestral concerts, operas and ballet.

While the opera performances includes a wide variety from the classical opera canon, Teatro Massimo also hosts new interpretations and works from contemporary composers, ballet, new theatrical works, concerts, workshops and chamber music.

Teatro Massimo Bellini, Sicily

 Teatro Massimo Bellini, Catania was opened in Catania on the 31st of May 1890. The event was celebrated by a debut performance of Bellini’s Norma, a masterpiece from the great Catania composer who gives the theatre its name.

This splendid baroque theatre is a true work of art, visiting it on a day tour is wonderful, while seeing it during a performance is unforgettable.

The opera season is usually reserved for the autumn/winter months but there are generally ballet and classical music concerts throughout the year.

There is a particular dedication to Bellini opera for obvious reasons, located in the centre of Catania it reserves a special place at the heart of the Sicilian capital.

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La Scala, Milano

 La Scala, Milan is the most famous Italian theatre in the world.

Destroyed during world war two it was lovingly rebuilt and has never been out of action since. It hosts the creme della creme of Italian and international opera, ballet, classical music and even works dedicated to children.

The opera season begins in February and usually closes for the summer, to reopen towards the end of the year. The performance season is filled with lavish productions of the world’s most famou operas featuring the best talent from all around the world. La scala offers special priced tickets for under 30’s, children and evening performances with half price tickets.

If you find yourself in Milan during the summer without a live performance to see be sure to tour the theater and the most extensive museum dedicated to the world of classical music. Often during the summer La Scala hosts a season of cinema dedicated to legendary performances which are projected inside the theater itself, even if it isn’t the live thing at least you can say you’ve seen opera at La Scala!

San Carlo Theater, Naples

San Carlo, Naples The San Carlo opera house is one of the busiest in Europe and produces endless new opera productions which are often toured through Italy and the continent.

Together with a varied symphonic program and ballet performances it is simply irresistible for anyone who loves theater. For lovers of ballet the San Carlo school of dance has a rich succession of new interpretations. The opera season usually runs throughout the year.

  La Fenice, Venice

The final and by no means the least significant is Venice’s La Fenice which was tragically burnt down in a fire and has been painstakingly rebuilt to its former glory.

Even if you don’t get a moment or manage to find tickets to a performance as they can be hard to get, a tour through this baroque masterpiece will no doubt form a part of your fondest memories of Italy.

It is easy to make a booking for a tour through of La Fenice’s Baroque, gilded beauty.

The Theatre is generally open for tours every day from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm, though variations in the schedule may occur for artistic or technical reasons.

For an added cost you can choose to take the deluxe version of the tour with a personal guide which takes you through the entire theatre and its spaces from the Foyer, behind the scenes in the theatre, the Royal Box and the magnificent Sale Apollinee.

Happy travelling and enjoy creating the memories.

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On the road to Syracuse

 

Ficarra, Messina. One of the many towns happily balancing itself on the mountains.

 

The golden moment of the early Sicilian early morning overwhelms me, church steeples from the cramped towns hanging off the Nebrodi Mountains for dear life are lit up with a distinctly auburn glow. I rolled out of bed this morning at four am for a day trip by bus to Noto, Syracuse, so things are still a little groggy but the splendid morning is making me appreciate the effort.

 

It is a privilege to salute the mystic Aeolian Islands in the hues of a misty sunrise deep in the province of Messina as the sun begins to shine out from under its bed covers. The bus is filled with loud slightly hyperactive Sicilians who guffaw and happily proclaim: ‘Ogni tantu dovemu alargari’ – literally we need to let ourselves go occasionally.

 

As we climb onto the Consorzio delle Autostrade superhighway, a nattering group of fifty-somethings start to peel off layers of clothes to reveal freshly varnished nails and dressed hair. I put my headphones on to shut drown out the chatter.

 

At Messina the strait is like a sheet of ice as if Calabria is only a brief sledge ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains who appear to heave a sigh of restlessness. Autostrada tunnels create the illusion night time is close despite the evasive morning light. I don’t know whether to sleep or rejoice for the pristine lustre before me.

 

Those yelping hyenas who dominate the bus have settled down and we sneak under the bustling tourist Mecca of Taormina, briefly snatching a glance down at the ancient Greek seaside colony of Giardini Naxos, a respite from the darkness of the underworld beneath the ranges.

 

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2014

Heading towards Catania a dark lady reveals her splendid silhouette, even if she normally hides like a coquette seductively behind a feathered boa stole. Etna’s jagged outline sketches itself out despite the dreary clouds, wearing only a tuft of white as if gently pulling on a cigarette above the Messina – Catania highway. For Sicilian’s Etna is defiantly female alluding to the fertility of the goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who create the gifts of agriculture and the seasons.

 

Palm trees and palazzi give way to a mélange of apartments, industrial warehouses, truck deposits and abandoned boarded up houses near Giarre. The foothills of Etna become a harsh and ugly juxtaposition of factories with an infestation of overgrown prickly pear cactus, rubbish tips, recycling plants and lava stone homes with names like Villa Corallo dell’Etna.

 

We stop at a tired Acireale autogrill gas station and I wistfully day-dream about Carnival parades while studying a solitary broken down campanile just behind the depot. The slate coloured steeple is covered in ‘edera’ vines adorned with white flowers called the ‘calice della Madonna,’ elongated chalices in which according to Sicilian folklore the infant Jesus drank.

 

Travelling in the bus again I can see into the windows of peoples high-rise apartments beside the highway as we creep around the back of Etna and through densely populated towns. Misterbianco is filled with mega shopping complexes and an IKEA superstore, while old lava deposits are piled up in between condominiums outside of Paternò.

 

As we reach Sicula Occidentale, it begins pelting with rain which blurs together the olive groves of Priolo, with the blockheaded limestone mountains of Gargallo and blankets the solar panels near Solarino.

 

Etna has mysteriously disappeared and more plains appear dotted by irrigated orchids of oranges, lemons, golden meadows, greenhouses and pleasant hills.

 

Rain comes streaming down the buses generous side windows as we reach Avola the town nearest to Noto, famous for its fruity red wine with a punch.

 

I’m contemplating the prospect of having to shut myself inside a little bar for the whole day to shield from the downpour, perhaps I could drown my disappointment in a few glasses of ‘Nero d’avola.’

 

Piazzale Marconi, Noto Syracuse

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A Sicilian wish list for the summertime

 

Church of San Giuseppe Corso Umberto, Taormina
Church of St Catherine Piazza XI Aprile, Taormina

 Daphne’s house: Giardini Naxos, Castelmola and Taormina

Taormina is a beautiful town to explore but it is terribly touristy and there are many other things to see in the vicinity.

Be sure to visit Casa Cuseni an historic house which became like a real character in one of the best books around about Sicily by the late great Daphne Phelps titled A House in Sicily. The book is a wonderful love letter to this Sicilian villa which became Daphne’s home after she inherited the grand old house built and designed by her talented Uncle, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson from 1905 to 1907. It has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast and museum.

Be sure to see a show at the Ancient Greek amphitheater at Taormina as it is one of the most famous postcard views of Etna and it will be an unforgettable memory to see an open air summer show of contemporary music or opera depending what may be on offer. Take the chance to do this now as the Taormina festival is suffering some major cuts in funding.

Be sure to explore the nearby towns who are just as beautiful as Taormina and with a lot less tourists Castelmola is above Taormina with positively vertiginous views. While Giardini Naxos below on the coast near Taormina, easily reached by cable car with some great beaches and cute little ‘Trattorie’ restaurants who offer great seafood at more reasonable prices than the tourist traps at Taormina!

 

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Three Sicilian Cathedrals: Monreale, Palermo,Cefalu

If you love churches in the grand Norman style I suggest you do a mini tour of three of the most amazing cathedrals you will ever see.

The Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo has the most spectacular mosaics including a giant depiction of Jesus Christ which covers one Dome of the grandiose church, filled with precious stones and gold. 

The Palermo Cathedral is a mixture of Norman,Gothic,Baroque and Neoclassical styles with extensive mosaic decorations and art treasures.

The Cathedral- Basilica of Cefalu’, dates from 1131 and was originally built-in the Norman style. The building was erected by Roger the second the King of Sicily after he escaped from a storm sheltering on the Cefalu beach. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises above the medieval town and is a powerful statement of the Norman presence in Sicily.

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 Piazza Armerina

Along the theme of mosaics is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina which is an ancient Roman villa so well preserved you can walk through the different rooms and marvel at the beautiful mosaic decorated floors. It has recently been restored and as of 2006 there are new archeological excavations underway.

Visiting Piazza Armerina will give you an opportunity to explore the belly button of Sicily which has its own unique character, be sure to take a drive around the ancient towns like Enna, Piazza Armerina,Nicosia and Mistretta which will give you a sense of the timeless quality of Sicily.

Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra
Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra

 Santo Stefano di Camastra

The most spectacular souvenir to take home from Sicily are the ceramics. There are many tourist traps around the island who claim to sell authentic pieces but you really cannot go wrong visiting the ceramic factories at Santo Stefano di Camastra.

Stores in the town vary in price and style but if you stick to the big warehouses on the other side of the town away from the autostrada exit you will be buying directly from the producers, with wholesale prices and international shipping!

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 Nelson’s Castle, Bronte

Castello di Maniace (or Castello Nelson) is in the fertile countryside between Randazzo and Bronte.

 An historical English property which was given to Admiral Lord Nelson as a gift after he rescued the Bourbon king of the two Sicilies, after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796. 

I have blogged here about this places history before but to be honest and I am yet to make it out to see its beautiful grounds and museum, but can’t wait to get there this summer!

Etna cable car
Etna cable car

 Etna

All tourists who visit the island must go to Mount Etna! 

There are many ways of experiencing the volcano and the national park that surrounds it, from taking a tour bus from Catania to see the more touristy spots closer to its peak or take one of many walking tours. 

You can go up via cable car, riding on four-wheel drive buses or on Sicilian donkeys. For the less adventurous types there are many places to explore away from the main peak like old extinguished craters and shopping at higher altitudes for retail therapy.

If you are staying at Catania a wonderful day trip would be to catch the Circumetnea railway which takes you from Catania around the base of Etna all the way to near the coast at Giarre or if you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus and see the landscape in the opposite direction towards Catania. It is a wonderful way of seeing Etna (here is some great information on TripAdvisor.)

Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo

 Randazzo

I’ve always loved Randazzo at the foot of Mount Etna, it is a beautiful town made of suggestive lava stone, filled with historic buildings, castles and museums.

On Sundays there is a hug market which I love to visit with a bit of everything from local cuisine, antiques, to fashion.

My favorite gem at Randazzo is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s exterior is a contrast between intricate white lace and charcoal lava stone while inside is filled with art and the most outstanding stained glass windows.

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 Aeolian Islands

The Aeolian Islands are a popular way of passing the summer at the beach. There are seven islands along the Tyrrhenian coast in the province in Messina, all of volcanic origin including: Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Lipari and Volcano.

Lipari and Volcano are the most popular and biggest islands with great beaches and spas to explore even if food and drink can get costly as everything is imported from the mainland. 

The smaller islands are less touristy and just as spectacular. There are many mini cruises available to explore them even if it can get uncomfortable in the summer humidity, it is defiantly worth the trouble.

 

Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.
Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.

 Tindari

Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in about fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looks out on to the Bay of Patti along the northern coast stretching up to Cape Milazzo which made it a perfect post to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern, work on it began in nineteen fifty-seven after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo that ship was returning from the east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons.  As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay near Tindari.

It is said the statue chose it’s own home, the ship remained trapped in the bay and became free only after the sculpture was unloaded.

The statue has a magnetic quality to it. The whole church draws you towards the sculpture and it is the main focus for pilgrims. For me it is its ancient quality that creates an undeniable mystique and well worth the trip to this somewhat isolated spot along the coast from Messina.

During the summer the road up to Tindari is closed but there is a bus every ten minutes or so and there are loads of souvenir shops all the way up. If you want to buy religious items like rosary beads the first shop directly next to the church is run by the religious community and profits go directly to the church.

The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.
The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.

 Messina

Messina is a lovely place to visit, in the summer it is not as chaotic and confusing as other Sicilian metropolises and there is always something to see and do. There are many museums and art galleries to visit and it is easy to stroll around the historical centre and discover many churches and beautiful palaces. I recommend climbing the bell tower near the Duomo, visiting the permanent exhibition downstairs in the Duomo which features wonderful historical artworks and treasures associated with the church and the celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary which has a particular strong attachment with the city.

Messina is friendly for pedestrians and there is a tram service through the main part of town. Piazza Cairoli is an oasis in the confusion of peak hour traffic and is also the best place to rest and do some high-class shopping, the boutiques begin in the  square and continue either side of the tramline. Don’t forget to visit the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele which is practically next door to the town hall for a surprising glance at an original fresco by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso depicting the myth of Cola Pese on the theater’s inner dome.

The best bookstore in town is Libreria Ciofalo on the other side of the Town Hall (municipio) and has a tempting array of Sicilian travel, history and literature.

It’s also easy to catch a ferry over to Calabria to explore Reggio Calabria and the main continent of Italy. Catching the ferry back over to Messina during the night is a magical experience.

Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse
Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse

Val di Noto

A wonderful way to while away your time in Sicily is to simply get out on the road. Why not hire a car and explore southeastern Sicily visiting the eight baroque cities which make up the Noto Valley. Create your own itinerary through Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania,Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli who are all UNESCO world heritage sites.

I’m a huge fan of the do it your self road trip and this area is easily enough navigated by car and there are endless resources online for suggestions on what to see. I suggest to do your research and try to book local bed and breakfast for memorable experiences as b&b owners will give you the best advice on what to see and where to eat. I have recently discovered Airbnb a great site with links to locals from all over the world who rent out rooms, houses and apartments to visitors which is a wonderful resources for travelers.

Another great idea for those who love theatre is to check out the summer program at the Syracuse ancient greek theatre, every year they offer a wonderful array of ancient greek classics, this year for example there is a lavish production of Verdi’s Aida.

 

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 Agrigento

Yet another UNESCO heritage site in Sicily is The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples it is an archaeological site in Agrigento in southern Italy and contains outstanding examples of ancient Greece art.

The archaeological park and landscape of the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with some 1,300 hectares.

The Valley includes remains of seven temples all in Doric style including: the Temples of Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Accra’s, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius.

The best way to experience The Valley of Temples is to buy yourself some local delicacies like cheeses, bread, olives, fruit and vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy a rustic picnic beneath these wonderful ruins of the ancient world.

 

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 Trapani

The western coast of Sicily is filled with wonderful seaside towns to explore from Trapani with it’s windmills and salt producing artificial lakes, to Marsala where the dark sweet wine of the same name originated, up to the mountain top castle like fortress town of Erice. From the hills you can glimpse the Egadi Islands, Tunisia and Africa.

 This part of Sicily is an agricultural region filled with grape vines, olive trees, wheat and cotton fields which dominate the countryside and the coast provides salt, tuna and mackerel for consumers all around the world. 

Summertime is the perfect time of year to explore this part of Sicily, enjoying the sea air and sipping mildly chilled Marsala.

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I recently did a guest post for The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife about my last summer vacation in Sicily if you want more ideas!