How I fell in love with Sicily

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  • November 24, 2014
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I fell in love with a Sicilian before I fell in love with Sicily.

Before I met him I didn’t know much about it. Only two or three people I knew had been there, and my first thoughts were probably similar to yours right now: the Mafia; dark-skinned farmers; great food, and a volcano.

I’m now married to that Sicilian. He was born here in Australia and he’d never been to Sicily, which struck me as strange.

Me: ‘Don’t you want to see where your parents grew up? Where your brothers and sister were born? Meet your relatives?’

Him: ‘Not really’

Me: ‘Oh’

It didn’t put me off ….

Me a few weeks later: ‘We’re going to Sicily’

Him: ‘OK’

And so we went.

That was a four years ago, and since then we’ve been three times, simply because I fell in love with it and kept being drawn back.

It’s an incredible place. Although it’s part of Italy it’s also very different from the mainland. Because of its crossroads location in the mediteranean between Italy and Africa it’s been invaded and ruled by anyone who was anyone in the history books – in no particular order – Greeks, Romans, Spanish, Moors, Normans and even the  Austrians. It’s been home to powerful Greek colonies and Palermo, the capital was once the wealthiest and most glittering city in the world. And this is what makes it so interesting. All these invaders left their mark – on architecture, art, food, technology and language. Even if you speak Italian well, hear a Sicilian speak in dialect and you won’t have a clue what they’re saying.

There’s lots to love about Sicily but what I love most about it is:

The architecture

Imagine whole cities built in 17th century Spanish baroque style, Norman castles, glittering gold Arab mosaics, ancient monuments – Greek temples and theatres and Roman villas, and prehistoric cave dwellings and burial sites. All packed into one island. This mish-mash of styles makes it a visually exotic place.

Greek temple at Segesta Sicily

Greek temple at Segesta

Erice castle Sicily

Castle in the hilltop town of Erice

Greek theatre in Segesta Sicily

Greek theatre in Segesta

Spanish baroque architecture in Noto, Sicily

Spanish baroque in Noto

And unlike some other monuments you visit, these are mostly in pretty good nick.

I studied history at school but it was all fairly meaningless to me then. Going to Sicily made it all make sense. If only I’d gone way back then.

Eating

It’s seriously incredible and has been influenced by all those invaders I mentioned earlier.

Cannoli, almond biscotti, pistachio gelato, ricci, teensy tiny fried calamari, pasta with sardines, pine nuts & currants – these are a few of my favourite things!

Biscotti Erice Sicily

I’m lucky to have a Sicilian mother in law who is an excellent cook, but to have this food every day is magic and a real treat.

The markets

All of my favourite food markets are here in Palermo and Catania, the two biggest cities. Some have been operating continuously for centuries and were started by the Arabs. They still have a very Arabic feel. Stallholders sing out in praise of their produce while you pass by swordfish heads, guts of god-knows-what, snails escaping from baskets, vegetables with names unknown, and fruit piled up in pyramids. The produce here is excellent and really cheap. But even if you don’t buy anything  it’s pure theatre.

food market Catania Sicily

food market Catania Sicily

Each time I return to Sydney I’m in a fit of depression at not being able to shop in these wonderful places.

The people

Of course it’s a cliche to say the people are lovely. But Sicilians love a chat, especially to Australians, and I suspect even more so to Sicilian Australians. Last century saw an exodus from Sicily as a result of economic hardship and poverty, and many of those people came to Australia. Sicilians always ask where you’re from, and when you say Australia the next question is always ‘Sydney or Melbourne?’. Most times they have relatives here in Australia or have visited themselves. One chap we met had been here seven times!

Nonni, Catania Sicily

The landscape

This is a very personal thing but I love cacti and succulents and Sicily is full of them! They love the heat that wafts over from Africa.

Prickly pear fichi d'india Sicily

tower cefalu sicily

There are several towns in Sicily that make ceramics, and if I could fit these guys in my carry-on they’d be coming home with me!

ceramics Sicily

And you just come across quirky things all the time, like this

shopping ape palermo sicily

Plus there are a few other things that make me happy when I’m there

Such as … it’s easy to drive around & pretty easy to navigate through, there are loads of fabulous B&Bs to stay in, it’s cheap (and way cheaper than northern Italy), has some lovely beaches, and best of all with a few exceptions it isn’t (yet) overrun with tourists. Which means you don’t have to make dinner reservations more than a few hours ahead if at all, you’ll be hearing Italian chatter with your dinner rather than listening to Americans, and you don’t have to line up for much at all, even in the cities.

Cefalu beach Sicily

To be fair there are a few things about Sicily that don’t make me happy

There’s no wildlife. None.

It gets really seriously hot in July & August. Too hot to walk around in my opinion without your head baking and exploding.

They eat cake for breakfast. Yes really. Call me strange but I’m not a fan.

There are parking mafia everywhere (people who guard public parking areas in piazzas and charge to wave you into a spot you’ve already seen, and to keep ‘watch’ over your car).They’re pretty funny and easy to avoid but a nuisance nonetheless.

I mentioned before that driving is pretty easy but they do have a habit of ignoring the lane markings, and making five lanes out of three, which can get interesting if you’re not watching out.

It’s dirty. Really dirty.  There’s garbage and rubble and graffiti that can make it look a bit third world in places. It doesn’t bother me, but it might bother you. This can also make it look like you’re going to get mugged / die in some parts of Palermo and Catania, but we’ve (touch wood) never had any problems. I think it’s just a poor place that’s still getting over the mafia stranglehold and economic mismanagement.

Palermo Sicily abandoned building

So that’s what I love most about Sicily, and next time I’ll be giving you my Sicily Top Ten, so stay tuned!

 

 

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Until next time, safe travels,

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