It seems like it has taken us so long to arrive here in Sicily. With our hops from the mainland first to Corsica, then Sardinia and now at the beginning of February we’re finally here.
The overnight cruise was in style this time, we booked a cabin! No more trying to sleep in reclining chairs or in desperation moving to the floor, no we said let’s splurge and spend 68 euro, approx 100 hard earned Aussie dollars on a cabin, so we slept well, had long hot showers then drove off the ferry and into Palermo.
Fought over for centuries for it’s superb location the capital city of Sicily, Palermo, sits in the Gulf of Palermo and at the foot of Mount Pellegrino.
We wander the older historical section for hours, getting lost more than once in it’s grimy and chaotic maze of streets where there seems to be a church or a palace around every corner, or piazza’s with beautiful 16th century fountains created by Florentine sculptors
Palermo has strong historical ties to the Arab world because of it’s proximity, and when you wander the old street markets it’s very evident. Stalls of spices, mouth-watering street food, items that have probably ‘fallen off the back of a truck’ and fishmongers that will skin an eel, filet your swordfish or cook and serve you octopus that was swimming in the tank only moments before.
What you can’t always see, but feel is the darker side of Sicily, especially in the cities, where you feel an air of suspicion or distrust, and people seem to watch you knowing you are an outsider. But offer a friendly smile or a Buongiorno and the suspicion fades almost immediately, and the one’s that you do have chance to speak to, are generous and friendly.
In December 2018, forty six ‘alleged’ mobsters, including an 80-year-old man recently elected head of the Cosa Nostra or Sicilian Mafia were arrested in Palermo, after reports of the resurrection of the fearsome Cupola, a body of leading members of the Cosa Nostra that decides the criminal actions, including killings
It’s not un-common to see soldiers and police with machine guns walking the streets, although sadly in most large European cites you see this these days.
Well we just couldn’t drive through such a famous named place, could we?
Who can remember the bottle of Boronia Marsala in their parent’s liquor cabinet, and Mum’s special recipe for Marsala Chicken or Veal Marsala?
An interesting fact about Marsala (the wine) is that it was discovered by an Englishman, John Woodhouse in 1773, and after tasting the local product decided it should be marketed throughout Europe, USA and Australia. It’s not like the sicky sweet Boronia type either, in fact you can buy a very dry Marsala used to clean your palate between courses.
Not much else to see in town really, and a huge funeral was being held at the Cathedral, too many people in black and we stood out way too much, so just bought my special bottle, had a coffee and got back on the road.
Brian has tasted a few of the local beers, but has yet to find one he loves, he is enjoying the challenge though. I have tried the local red wine and Marsala which I like, and there have been a couple of interesting looking bottles at the supermarket like the Julia Grappa, but yet to try it.
ANCIENT GREEK CITIES- Selinute and Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples
We have seen some really good Greek ruins, The Acropolis in Athens, Delphi and the fantastic open-air theatre at Epidavros where we were lucky to see Helen Mirren and the British Theatre company in Phaedra. But the ruins in Sicily are probably some of the best preserved we have ever seen.
Temple to the Olympian Zeus, built to celebrate a victory over in Carthaginians in 480 BC, and in the Temple of Hercules a huge bronze statue of Hercules was found, and the Temple of Concordia with it’s huge and very well-preserved Doric columns
There are only seven temples left standing now in this 13 sq km site of the ruined city of Akragas, with most of the temples built high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and using the natural stone as a defensive wall. A very straight road about 4 kms in length runs straight through the centre and there are remains of an Olympian field on the opposite side of the road where now are gardens filled with olive and almond trees and grape vines. There are also a herd of strange looking dairy goats called Girgentana, which have tall spiral, corkscrew shaped horns, and are indigenous to the area.
Every town and village in Sicily operate on the same timescales, so no matter where you are you know that shops, banks, post offices, museums even the churches are open from 9am till 1pm then close until 4 or 5pm when they reopen until 7pm. And whatever you do don’t get in their way when they are trying to get home for lunch at 1pm.
There are not many large supermarkets, but in most villages, you will find a grocer that sells fruit and veg as well, a tabac, a coffee shop/bar/ local hangout for the guy’s and if there isn’t a baker you will see small trucks parked on the side of the road selling bread, rolls and some pastries. And our fav Lidl are in larger centres.
Cyclists in their flash gear are a common sight especially on weekends, but it’s also not unusual to see an elderly man cycling up steep hill, and at a steady pace at that. The women walk often in pairs or groups chatting away and, on the weekend, especially if the sun is out families will head to the beach for a walk along the promenade or go to the park.
Scooters are everywhere, I think every teenager must have one, and most ride with no helmets on, although you will see they have one near their feet or slung over their shoulder. And they are fearless, overtaking and dodging in and around the cars and potholes the size of a swimming pool.
Little three-wheel Piagio vans are common in the countryside, I think one would be perfect for me for a trip to the supermarket at home and I’m not sure how you qualify for a license in Sicily but it mustn’t take much. They basically jump in the car turn on the ignition, put it in gear and stomp on the gas pedal and not take it off again until they reach their destination where they will park as close to you or in the smallest space possible. And if they can’t find a spot they will double or triple park and just put on their 4-way flashers and go to the bank, bakery or just chat with someone they have seen It never seems to occur to a Sicilian driver to stop or let someone pass, they will dent their car first before using their common sense. Most drive with a cell phone in one hand and if they happen to stop for you to cross the road it’s probably just so that they can swap hands with their phone. Most cars have some sort of dent or scrape on them, sadly even the nice new ones.
All manner of seafood is available, and at the local markets you can buy fresh mussels, sardines, swordfish, tuna and all kinds of fish that we have no idea what they are. Fresh pecorino cheese is a local speciality, and you often find it infused with olives or peppercorns. You do see the occasional butcher and of course red meat is available in the supermarkets, but seafood seems to be eaten mostly.
The Villa Romana del Casale is in south east of Sicily and is thought to have been the hunting lodge of a Roman dignitary. Built in the 3rd century has the most spectacular mosaics of sport, hunting, ships, giant sea creatures, even bikini clad young girls.
Covered by a landslide and flood for more than 700 years the floor mosaics and wall frescoes are still in excellent condition. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site with the mosaics said to be some of the best in the world. Excavations are still on-going, we saw more than 60 rooms that you view from elevated walkways, and that was probably only half of the villa that’s open to the public.
The south east coast of Sicily is quieter and less developed, and now in the early spring the orange and lemon trees are full of fruit. You can buy a flat of oranges or mandarins for a euro or so, and they have those lovely red blood oranges as well.
With Mount Etna still very active and puffing away earthquakes are also a concern here. In 2017 she blasted into life again sending a 7km plume of ash and smoke into the air. And just before Christmas 2018 Etna erupted and during a 3-hour period more than 130 earthquakes were reported, and a few people were hurt from falling debris.
A few years ago, the dome of the spectacular baroque Cathedral in Noto collapse due to an earthquake, – apparently the local authorities knew it was cracked but nothing was done. Fortunately, it was empty at the time.
Talking about Mt Etna, for the next day or so we are parked at a tiny sea side village of Agnone with the mountain right in front of us so if she decides to blow off some steam we will be in the perfect position for the show. There has been a small puff of white and sometimes a larger plume of grey smoke emerging for most of the afternoon and the local volcano ‘activity’ centre give her a 3.5 chance out of 5 for some greater activity in the next few days.
The experts predict though there is more chance that one day Etna will just collapse towards the sea, causing a devastating tsunami. Hopefully that will never happen, as although there are no villages close to Etna, the densely populated cities of Catania and Messina sit either side of her on the coast.
Rubbish is by far the worst we have seen. It’s everywhere! They don’t have residential collections instead they have communal collections. So, every town will have several spaces where residents can dump rubbish, and between stray dogs and cats that rip the bags apart, and people that don’t seem to care where they dump stuff there is rubbish strewn everywhere, and if anything spoils Sicily for us that would be it.
This last few pictures are so typical of Sicily for me.
So next we catch another ferry, just a short one this time, only 30 minutes or so that will take us to Calabria back on the mainland.