Sicily: It’s All Good


October 30, 2009

On a recent Sunday evening in Agrigento on Sicily’s South Coast, Kay and I left our hotel to walk along the single narrow street of the city’s medieval quarter. Traffic there was at a standstill, and we noticed that the stuck cars had the air of having been sitting for some time. Most of their drivers had shut off their engines and were reading, chatting with other drivers, or dreaming idly. The scene was calm; there was no horn blowing. Kay and I kept walking and eventually got to the cause of the jam. A city bus was wedged between a building and an illegally parked car’s rear fender. The bus driver and a group of men stood discussing the matter loudly as they do in Sicily. We kept walking and a short time later the bus roared past us followed by the rest of the traffic. Did the driver of the parked car show up and move it? Did a group of men physically pick up the car, move it a bit sideways, and give the bus clearance? Or did the bus finally just plough ahead and crush the rear of the parked car? We don’t know. It’s just one of many mysteries we encountered on our trip to this fabled island.

Others included the seemingly random store opening hours. In Turkey, as in the U.S., stores are open all day and often late into the evening. This kind of convenience is the norm. By contrast, in Sicily storeowners seem to measure success by the least number of hours they can stay open and still remain in business. And on the subject of stores, how can there be so many selling clothing, shoes, jewelry and watches? These merchants outnumber others ten to one. ‘Looking good’ must be preeminent.

At times our progress through Sicily was stressful. With the U.S. dollar especially weak against the Euro, most of what we spent our money on seemed overvalued. But money aside, it was our driving misadventures that constituted our darkest moments. Highway driving was pleasant enough. Sicilian road surfaces are in good repair and the traffic mostly light. Our problems all came in the towns. Poor signage was one. We had so much trouble finding our way into the center of Catania that Kay was ready to skip that city and have us drive on. We’re glad we didn’t, though; once we had made our way in and abandoned the car, our two days there were lovely.

Whether through ignorance or necessity we were often embroiled in horrendous driving situations. Often these were the result of losing our orientation in unfamiliar towns built on mountainsides and filled with steep, narrow, one-way streets, cul-de-sacs, double parked vehicles, and a variety of other obstacles. The example I gave earlier is one kind; lack of parking is another. Some Sicilians make no pretense of trying to park correctly. They simply nose their vehicle into a tight space and leave the rear end sticking out into the traffic lane. I wouldn’t have expected to be surprised by this. After all, for the last five years I’ve been trained in Istanbul’s school of crazed-driving. Still, Sicily was different.

We wouldn’t have had to drive of course, but when we think of the time we saved and the sites we visited, some of which would have been difficult to reach without a car, I realize that driving was probably the best bad choice.

The joy of traveling independently is that you get to do your own thing. For better or worse, it’s your trip, not someone else’s. The “better” can cause exaltation and the “worse”, depression. On such a trip it’s good to be able to take things “philosophically”.  Our mantra on this journey was Bob Dylan’s ironic song from his latest album, It’s All Good. It never failed to make us smile, albeit sometimes grimly.

Arigento – Temple of Concord

Why visit Sicily? For one thing the island encapsulates the rise and fall of Mediterranean civilization. For better than 2,500 years the island was invaded, fought over, and colonized in turn by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Angevins, and the Spanish whose reign lasted 500 years. Today, the traces of these civilizations reside mostly in stone, Sicily’s stunning architectural legacy.  Here are some highlights:

Greek Theatre

I read that Syracuse was once the most important city of the ancient Greek world. On a hillside in the city’s archeological park stand the remains of an enormous theater. We gazed at it, trying to imagine what it looked like in its glory and what it might have been like to be one of 15,000 people watching a new tragedy by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE.

Orecchio di Dionisio

Near the theater is an ancient quarry, where prisoners – survivors of a failed attack by Athens in 415 BCE – toiled for seven years, quarrying stones to build a tyrant’s monuments. In the quarry is an unusual, serpentine cave whose acoustics led the painter Caravaggio to call it Orecchio di Dionisio, Dionysus’ Ear.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio came to Sicily after being run out of nearby Malta, and in Syracuse he painted one of his last great works, The Burial of Saint Lucy, currently on view in the church dedicated to the city’s patron saint on Cathedral Square.

Appreciating Sicily’s church architecture kept us busy. There are soooo many churches. In today’s secular and fragmented societies, it takes an act of imagination to grasp the power and reverence given to the Catholic Church in the 18th century. I single out the 18th because that was the era in which the splendid cathedrals and civic buildings of Syracuse, Noto, Modica, Ragusa, and Catania all were built. These towns and cities of southeastern Sicily had been partially or completely destroyed by what must have been the mother of all earthquakes in 1693. The rebuilding opportunities that ensued coincided with the efflorescence of the ebullient architectural style known as the Baroque.

Chiesa di San Chiara

It was while immersing ourselves in the architectural diversity of these towns, especially of the churches, that we developed an appreciation of the Baroque style greater than we had before.

Sicilian Baroque architecture is so ornate and theatrical that the piazzas containing it resemble huge stage sets. Interiors are equally stunning. We loved the church vaults with their trompe oeil frescos whose painted architecture combines with human and animal figures in intriguing ways. An example is the effect created where a figure seems to be escaping over the ribs of a dome like a subject escaping from a picture frame. At times it was difficult to tell which architectural elements were real and which were painted.

These kinds of trompe l’oeil effects were not limited to churches. Our room in our hotel in Syracuse had a ceiling that looked not to be flat. Its embossed portions were painted with geometric designs and popular local scenes. It was not until our second day while I lay in bed looking up at these that I realized the ceiling was in fact flat and that what looked like plaster medallions done in relief were actually artfully painted effects.

Kay standing in No. PO1 with its “Short Ceiling”

While on the subject of hotel rooms I have to mention room number PO1 in the Hotel Tonic in Palermo. Some of you may have seen the movie Being John Malkovich. If so, remember the office scenes on the twelfth-and-a-half floor where the half-height ceilings were so low that the workers had to move around in a crouch. Well, that was what this room was like. It was the only vacancy in the hotel, and we took it by default after an exasperatingly rainy morning driving around the flooded districts of Palermo to get to the city center. Here’s a photo of our room, so you can see this marvel for yourselves.

Hotel Villa Egiea

Another hotel in Palermo – alas, one where we didn’t stay – provided one of the most pleasantly relaxing moments of our entire trip. The Villa Egiea, a grand palazzo built originally by a Palermitan grandee, has been for many years the best hotel in the city. We went there at dusk to have a drink on its elegant terrace and to look at the splendid Art Nouveau frescos painted decades ago for the Florio family by the artist Ernesto Basile.

They cover the upper walls of a grand room ornamented with beautifully carved wooden accents in the same Art Nouveau style. As the sky was darkening, we enjoyed drinks on the terrace overlooking the sea and a couple of small islands. It is an utterly charming spot.

If our travel arrangements left something to be desired, our dining seldom did. The high praise given to Sicilian food and wine is not undeserved. In Catania our lunch at the Trattoria La Paglie within earshot of the cries of the fishmongers in the market outside the door was divine. We split a seafood salad of octopus, squid, shrimp and mussels followed by plates of linguini ricci whose sauce of sea urchin was a delicious “first” for us.

Our most unusual dining experience came on Sunday midday as we were driving down from Palermo. Half way to Agrigento and feeling hungry, we stopped at a roadside restaurant known as Il Fagiano that didn’t even look to be open. Upon entering the dining room, however, we saw long tables set for an imminent meal. To one side was a counter loaded with antipasti: green beans, broccoli, zucchini, potatoes, roasted peppers, cauliflower, and at least three different kinds of frittata. We were seated by a tall man with a very large belly hanging over his belt and told to help ourselves. We were about to eat a menu fiso of several courses.

Just as we had served ourselves from the array of antipasti, a group of about 50 middle-aged Italians entered en masse. It was quite a scene, reminiscent of an Italian movie. They seemed like country people who had come for Sunday dinner. We didn’t know if this was a special occasion or a Sunday ritual. They obviously knew each other well and were very animated in each other’s company. One man seemed to be directing people to approach the antipasti in small groups.

We were not forgotten in the rush. The large man, our host, kept us well supplied with wine, and other dishes as they came out of the kitchen. It was obviously a family business, the younger women in the kitchen while an apron-clad matriarch bustled around greeting her guests.

In addition to the antipasti, we ate three different kinds of pasta, followed by pork chops, sausage, and veal scaloppini. Then came a fruit plate with pears and grapes and finally a pastry shell filled with cannoli cream. It was a feast to remember and the only meal we needed that day.

Piazza Armerina lies in the Sicilian hinterland well away from the famous coastal cities. We drove there to visit the nearby Villa Romana at Casale. No sooner had we parked our car in one of town’s busy piazze then we were approached by Giovanni, the proprietor of the a small enoteca selling wine by the bottle and in bulk. He offered to lead us his bed and breakfast around the corner, and since his manner was open and straightforward, we accepted. The Bed & Breakfast Umberto 33 was indeed nearby in a three-storey walkup. Giovanna helped me bring up our luggage while Kay waited with his wife in their flat’s kitchen.

The Duomo at Piazza Armerina

Since there were no other guests, we had our choice of the B & B’s three rooms. From our window we could just see the top of the nearby cathedral.

Giovanni is a born salesman. I accompanied him to his shop and watched him interact with some customers who were prospects for some of his pricier goods. He gave everyone tastes of his muscato and another sweet wine flavored with almond. For his everyday customers he would pull out a clean, plastic liter bottle and fill it from one of two huge barrels that lay side by side. Each must have held at least 1,000 liters. One held red wine and the other rosé.

The Villa Romana is an archeologist’s dream. An expansive Roman villa, probably a hunting lodge belonging to Maximianus Herculeus, who along with Diocletian was co-ruler of the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd century, it was covered in a mudslide in the 12th. It wasn’t until the 1950s that excavations began to uncover it. What the archeologists discovered are extensive ruins whose floors contain a large number of striking mosaics, many depicting animals both local and exotic.

Their most common theme is hunting. One group of images in a single large room tells a story of a boar hunt complete with dogs, servants, etc.

Another room has pictures of women in Roman-style bikinis engaged in athletic games. The number and quality of this collection is astonishing. We’ve seen impressive collections of Roman mosaics in several museums, but nothing to compare with these in their variety and human interest.

I can only describe the mythological landscape around Piazza Armerina as fantastic. It reminded me of those paintings where the artist included different topographical features – cliffs, chasms, steeply rolling and cultivated hillsides, and spiky hills shaped liked miniature mountains — that would not normally be found in such close proximity. All this, viewed under a lowering grey sky, seemed less like a work of nature than of the imagination.


Ragusa Ibla, another town with an UNESCO World Heritage designation, has a splendid cathedral among its other treasures. It happened that we arrived on the final day of Ragusa’s annual Buskers’ Festival.



Street performers had come from as far as South America to participate. In the afternoon it was fun to sit in a café watching a group of acrobats rehearse.

Teatro Massimo

We didn’t give ourselves enough time in Palermo. From what I had read I expected to find the city looking worse than it does. We did tour the enormous Teatro Massimo, Francis Ford Coppola’s location for the opera sequences in Godfather III, and it was in Palermo that we saw the two most impressive religious sites of our entire trip.

Cappella Palatina

In the Palazzo dei Normanni, also known as the Royal Palace, there is a chapel, the, which is simply breathtaking. I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a religious building since as a 20-year-old I stared in amazement when I first looked upon the Cathedral of Chartes. Though their ages are similar, the Cappella Palatina is a very different kind of masterpiece.

Cappella Palatina

Built between 1132 and 1143 to be the private chapel of the Norman King Roger II, it is an intimate space, yet it is such a feast for the eyes that to examine it, even in cursory manner, seemed to take a long time. Almost every inch of the walls and columns is adorned with the most splendid mosaics combining geometrical design with figurative art. This is a masterwork in the Byzantine style.

Cappella Palatina

Dominant is the image of Christ as Pantocrator (King of the World) draped in luminous blue and seated on a throne between the standing figures of Saints Peter and Paul. All the figures in the chapel have a clarity and vibrancy of color astonishing for their great age. What we could see of the floor around the legs of the other visitors is composed of patterned marble while above, the wooden ceiling is a mass of carved and painted stalactites, a feature taken from Arab architecture.

Cathedral of Monreale,

The Cathedral of Monreale, just eight kilometers away up a winding road, was the highly personal project of the young king William II and was virtually “thrown up” in less than ten years late in the 12th century. William was powerfully motivated to outdo the English archbishop of Palermo, Walter of the Mill, who was building his own cathedral in the city.

William’s cathedral, the large medieval basilica of Monreale, has to be one of the most unusual in all of Catholic Christendom; although its rather austere exterior gives no clue to the riches within.

Cathedral of Monreale,

Walking in through a side entrance our first impression was dazzling. Everywhere on the walls above us, standing out sharply against golden backgrounds, are scenes from the Bible: From the New Testament, the miracles of Jesus and above these, stories of the creation, of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the Ark, of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of too many others to take in during a single visit.

Cathedral of Monreale,

Marveling at the scope and beauty of this masterwork, we wondered that it could have been done in such a short time. After all, the great cathedrals of Northern Europe were completed over centuries, while what we were looking at was done in ten years. William’s pockets must have been very deep.

On our last evening in Palermo, while walking back to our hotel through the ancient neighborhood of Il Capo, we passed a street market and then saw and heard something really touching. In a tiny tailor’s shop three old men were playing Besame Mucho on a guitar, accordion and mandolin. They were playing only for their own pleasure with an audience of two other old men. We stood in the shadows outside the open door for a while and listened.

Sicily is a land of awesome natural, historical and artistic richness, not to mention sublime cuisine, yet we came away with mixed feelings about our time there. One of the faults with the way Kay and I travel is trying to see and do too much. The effort of driving, securing lodging, and constantly reorienting ourselves amongst the horrific traffic congestion and maddening noise pollution took its toll.


We were tired by the time we reached the seaside town of Pozzallo and happy to spend our last day on the island doing very little.