Thursday, April 28, 2011



Regular blog readers may have noticed a slight hiatus in my up-until-now pretty excellent daily blog update record. This has of course been due to spending the last two weeks luxuriating in my wonderful holiday in wonderful Sicily. But now I’m ready to tell you more about this amazing island. Somewhere I read that the best description of Sicily is that it is constantly surprising, and this was certainly true for me. Food, scenery, people, traditions, food, stories, beaches, mountains, history, food...

Sicily - the red bit.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It is an autonomous region of Italy, and has been since unification in the 1860s – Garibaldi rode in with his ‘Thousand’ and liberated the island from the Bourbons in grand style, resulting in every town on the island having a ‘Via Garibaldi’. When I wanted to program the GPS in the hire car for a town centre and didn’t have a specific street address, I knew I could rely on getting to the centre of town by putting in ‘Via Garibaldi’. There are those, I’m told, who no longer revere Garibaldi (the old ‘sold-out-to-the-north' tune) but Garibaldi remains rather legendary anyway.

Sicily has been occupied by foreigners for about 3000 years – possibly a world record – which some say accounts for the rise of that other well-known Sicilian institution, the Mafia. Whether or not this foreign interference accounts for the hunkering down of the rural community into self-protecting gangs, who knows; but today the only evidence I (knowingly) saw of the Mafiosi was a moving monument on the autostrada near Palermo’s airport commemorating the spot where the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was blown to bits in 1992. One month later, the judge who replaced him, Paolo Borsellino, was also blown up after visiting his mother. The airport is now named Falcone-Borsellino.

Sicily’s occupiers started with the Carthaginians in about the 8th century BC – Phoenicians from the Levant who had built the great city of Carthage in North Africa. They were followed by the Greeks, then some autonomous tyrants, the Romans of course, the Byzantine Christians, the Moors from Arabia for a few hundred years (fried food, sesame seeds, sweet-and-sour flavours); and then a succession of Europeans from Spain, England, and France....until Garibaldi and The Thousand appeared.

Taormina prepares for Palm Sunday.
And the topography? Very mountainous, lush agriculture, a wine industry that supplies a great percentage of the Italian wine production, a fishing industry which must surely do the same; plus honey and olives and salt retrieved from the sea by ancient evaporative methods; citrus everywhere; almond trees, olive trees...a cornucopia. In the past – the not very distant past – life was hard in small rural Sicilian towns, but at least they lived in paradise. In beautiful Palermo, the capital city, the climate becomes tropical in summer, and already the hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani are beginning to bloom.

Cable car ascending Etna.
But Sicily is especially known for its volcanoes: Mt Etna (3,320 m) is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. It steams away on the horizon in north-eastern Sicily. In fact, there was an eruption about five days before I managed to travel up its slopes. The mountain was closed for the day: the eruption was described as ‘significant’ (rocks flung hundreds of metres into the air), but mercifully short (a few hours). So minor an incident for Etna, that it caused no real ripple nor news bulletins. The main issue which daunted my efforts to reach Etna was the foggy weather that shrouded the top of the mountain for a couple of days, but finally the clouds parted and I made a dash for it. Well, my guide and driver Carmelo made a dash for it...and then loaned me his jacket (“Its-a cold up there!”), put me on the chair lift and waved me off. The lift ascended through fog, arrived at a way station where jeep-style trucks were waiting; they ascended on a lava-grit road through ever-increasing snow drifts and more fog. Finally, spectacularly, we emerged above the fog and the steaming crater of Etna was revealed.

The fog rolls in again on Etna.
Off we tramped with a mountain guide, poked our noses into a smaller steaming vent – the guide assured us that this one would only send out steam now, no hot ash or lava – and climbed a ridge which was formed when Etna last really erupted, in 2001/02. The high point was 2, 950 m. On that occasion, several villages on the slopes of the mountain were damaged (I saw one Baroque church facade on the way up which was still propped up with girders and braces); and the roads and the tourist chair lift near the top had been destroyed. The ones we used were re-built since then. The snowy top of Etna, so close to the beach I had left that morning (only a 40 minute drive away), soon closed in with cloud again. I had been lucky to grab the opportunity.

Looking very pleased with self: on Mt Etna.
Guide Johanna and her red umbrella
In Taormina's Greek/Roman teatro.
Carmelo returned me to the hotel on the beach at Taormina, and I returned his jacket. Taormina is a town with a split personality: the main village is perched high on a rocky ridge, with the beach ‘burbs down below. A funicular (every 15 minutes) connects the two. I stayed in a hotel converted from a private villa, and funicular-ed up to see the village. Verdict? Picturesque, lovely shops and galleries, churches getting ready for the Palm Sunday service tomorrow, views to die for out across the coast. But Taormina’s big claim to fame is its unusual Greek theatre: the ruin is perched right atop the mountain. The Greeks didn’t use a backdrop for the stages of their theatres: the audience looking down at the players would have seen behind them an extraordinary view of the coast - and of Etna. The Romans, on the other hand, liked to erect ‘scenery’ – a back-drop to the stage, such as we use today and still call ‘scenery’. At Taormina, the Romans neither left the Greek theatre like it was (as in Siracusa) nor completely destroyed it. Instead, they built some obvious and interesting adaptations, including the aforementioned scenery (blocking the view somewhat), some porticoes entrances, some side dressing rooms, some pits for the animals they used, some extra seating. In the ruins today it is easy to see the hands of the Romans overlaying the hands of the Greeks. Molto interessante.

Back to the beach: Taormina
Ah, but that’s enough sightseeing – back to the Villa Sant’Andrea, some local fish courtesy of Vincenzo, the chef, perhaps preceded by a prosecco aperitif. Plenty of variety in Sicily.

Sicily: my route - Catania, Siracusa, Taormina,
Vulcano Is. (not on the map),
Trapani, Erice, Agrigento, Palermo.

No comments:

Post a Comment