Before coming to Rome, I knew there was one place I just had to see: Sicily. The land of my forefathers, the land of cannoli and limoncello, and the land of Greeks, Romans, and Arabs alike. Sicily, in many ways, is the cultural and culinary diamond of Italy, and I instantly fell in love with it. However, I didn’t only visit once, but twice. I had the chance to go first with my friends to see the modern day city of Palermo, and then with my school on a guided weekend touring all the ancient sites. Both were the highlights of my experience in Italy so far, and left me striving for more. I’ll go in chronological order, and share the weekend of ancient Sicily with you first.
Sicily goes much farther back than just the Romans, and is an integral piece of Greek history as well. For three days, we toured sites of Ancient Greek Temples and agoras, as well as a Greco-Roman theatre. Our travels started in the north-western city of Palermo, south down to Agrigento, and finally east past Mount Edna to Taromina. We pretty much covered the whole island, meaning that each bus ride provided countless beautiful scenes of the landscape. A few brave students and I decided to take the ferry to Sicily instead of flying. We left Rome on Thursday afternoon, took the train to Naples, then the overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo. While in Naples, we had the infamous Napolitano pizza, at the restaurant where “Eat Pray Love” was filmed. It was by far the best pizza I ever had, with the dough being the biggest difference. You know a restaurant is good when a “Margarita Pizza” is literally all they have on their menu, and the line is still out the door. The ferry was pretty empty so we had the whole boat to ourselves, and went out on the deck to wave bye to the Italian mainland as we left the coast of Naples. The next morning we arrived in Sicily at 6 AM, had morning cornetti and cappuccini, and then met up with the other students from the plane to begin our tour. We first toured a Christian basilica that had huge and beautiful Moorish arches. The Arabs had an immense role in medieval architecture in Sicily, and their art style is seen heavily in churches through their mosaics and arches.
We finally moved on to the main feature of our trip: Ancient Greek Temples. These temples date to the 6th century BC, and were built even before the infamous temples on top of the Acropolis in Athens. Now one might think this out of place since Sicily is Italian and what would the Greeks be doing in Italy. However, Italy has more preserved Greek temples than the entirety of Greece has! This is because of two reasons: 1.) Many Greeks immigrated to Italy and made cities, thus built temples to worship their specific deities. 2.) The Italians preserved these temples by making them into Christian churches. It is only recently that the archaeologists restored them to their original form. We saw tons and tons of Greek Temples. I don’t know what it is about them, but I love them so much. The monumentality of them, the antiquity behind it, the meticulous order and uniform style…these traits all combine to make marvelous wonders to behold. Now I have seen many Greek temples before in Greece, but these were different. Being in Sicily, these temples were surrounded by water and luscious greenery. Sicily is extremely fertile, as compared to the dry and arid land of Greece. Seeing the contrast of green and the pale orange of the temples really was a sight to see. We went to a site that had two intact temples, and the remains of around 6 others. These temples were in a green valley on a cliff overlooking the sea, so anywhere you looked through the columns you could see the sea. It was such a serene and peaceful feeling. We were allowed to go inside, which was a luxury I was never granted before. After taking loads of pictures, I just sat inside the temple, taking it all in. Just me, the rocks, and the gods. It was an experience I will never forget.
For the rest of the weekend we saw many more preserved temples. We ended up in Taromina, a beautiful little Sicilian town that is right next to the huge volcano, Mount Edna…which still leaks some lava here and there. We were there on Sunday, and the city center was filled with morning church bells and bustling with people buying their weekly sweets. Of course I ate my fill of cannoli. I went to a bakery where I watched them make and fill the shells themselves, along with drizzling them with pistachio and powdered sugar…honestly the best pastry I have ever had. We finished the weekend with a tour of an ancient Greco-Roman theatre on a cliff side. The whole weekend was filled with ancient wonders, a lot of fun, but most importantly a lot of peace. Being in the valleys and cliffs of Sicily really gave me a taste of bliss, and strengthened in me the passion I have for the ancient world and all it can teach us. I firmly believe that some of the best classical ruins lie in the valleys of Sicily, and I couldn’t be more proud of my association with this amazing island and its rich history.
Flash forward 2,600 years and you will reach modern Sicily! I had the opportunity to spend the whole weekend in modern day Palermo, which is the capital of Sicily. Besides eating more cannoli and drinking more limoncello, my main incentive was to see the origins of my family. I am 100% Italian; my mother’s side is from Naples, and my father’s side of the family is from Sicily, which they identify very strongly with. My great grandparents were from Messina and Palermo, but since Messina is on the other end of the island, I only had the chance to visit Palermo. After spending the weekend in Palermo, it makes complete sense that my family is from here. The way they talked, shopped, and ate is so resembling of my own family. I found it so fascinating to be a tourist in my own family’s origin. There are so many aspects of my family that I have grown to love so much, and I saw the origin of all of them here in Sicily.
First, a major part of my family is our Italian Butcher Shop. It is located in South Philadelphia, in a strip of indoor and outdoor shops called the Italian Market. This was all modeled after the outdoor markets in Sicily. I spent every morning walking around these markets, looking with pure joy at all the fish, meat, and vegetable stands. It was easily my favorite part of each day. There were meat markets that had rolls and rolls of Sicilian sausage hung on display, as well as all assortments of meats. To think that this is the inspiration for my family’s business was unreal; a simple tradition really can go a long way. I also loved all the fresh fish on sale at the markets. And when I say fresh, I mean that they still had the swordfish in whole, cut in half, and on display. Now this might creep out others, but my experience working at home has made me appreciate all aspects of fresh food…and this was certainly as fresh as you can get. Next to the swordfish were fresh octopi, squid, and shellfish of all kinds. I was in seafood heaven. However, the best part about it was all of the Italian vendors screaming at each other, haggling buyers with new prices, or arguing with each other. The noise, smell, and chaos all reminded me of home, and I could not have been happier. Now when I work back in the Italian Market this summer, I think I’ll have a bit more appreciation for where it all comes from.
The city itself is very unique because it is surrounded on all four sides by mountains or sea, which you can see at the horizon of each street. The city has a very convenient grid, with major streets such as “Via Roma” running through it. The city is also known for its many theatres. Our apartment was right next to the main Opera House, and it was gorgeous. Although it was roughly a grid, we still got lost. But each lost encounter resulted with an Italian comedy show. I say this because every time we asked Sicilians for directions, they would argue amongst themselves not only the best way for us to go, but who among them would tell us! These bouts of obnoxious and silly bantering are also familiar to me in my family…but I won’t point any fingers!
However, what I liked most about this place was the food. Sicily hands down has my favorite food. Their cornetti (stuffed croissants) have the most delicious filling, oozing with nutella or pistachio. Their pasta is to die for because it contains the most fresh selection of seafood or vegetables. I tried specialty Sicilian foods such as “Sicilian Meatballs”, which is pork wrapped around stuffing on a kebab, and swordfish pasta. I probably had ten cannoli the whole weekend…at least 3 a day! The cream was just so different from anything else I have ever had: so sweet and so fresh. The nightlife of Palermo also surprised me! It seems like there are no rules here in Sicily, people just drink and party where ever they want to. We stumbled upon this one open area with tons of bars and clubs but surrounded by dilapidated buildings. There were hundreds of people congregated there, as well as vendors selling drinks and food in public. This is where I tried my first authentic aranchino, a very popular Sicilian food that is like a fried rice and meat ball. Back in the States, these are very gourmet appetizer foods at high end Italian restaurants, but here they are simply bar food. It’s funny how food changes from its original intention across seas.
However, the most meaningful part of the trip was my visit to a very special church. I found out from my grand mom that her mother was baptized in Palermo, in a church that was hard to get to and imbedded into a mountain. Luckily, the owner of the bed and breakfast we stayed in was most helpful to me and helped me find the way to this church. So, I went! It was amazing. A couple friends and I took a bus from Palermo and up into the mountains we went! Finally we reached the church, and it was a beautiful site. There were only three buildings around it, the rest was all forest and a cliff drop that overlooked the whole city. The church is called “San Rosalie”, and is the patron saint of Palermo. The building is literally built into the mountain side, and the inside is breathtaking. Since it is in a mountain, the first part of the church is like a cove, exposed to the open air. Thus, it was luminescent with sunlight and filled with the sound of trickling rain drops on the edges of the rocked walls from a rain fall earlier in the day. The second half is covered by natural rock, and contains wooden pews and a gorgeous statue of Mary with a blue halo of stars around her head. Next to the altar was a baptismal font that was filled with natural water dripping from the rocks. This is the very same font that my great grandmother was baptized in! I was overwhelmed with humility and family love and pride. I took a moment to pray for my family, both present and deceased, for their intentions and for thanks. While I was in this church I realized how much my own family has come from, and how grateful I am for them. My great grandfather left Sicily with only 8 dollars in his pocket, went to war, started a business, and founded a family. At this church, I felt called to live a life of sacrifice, love, and courage like my ancestors did, and make them proud. This is where it all started. After I took some of the holy water from the font home with me in a bottle for my grand mom to keep, I left my new favorite church to go back to the city and fly home to Rome.
When I left Palermo, I felt like I was leaving a small version of home. With a land of such beauty, such good food, and such exuberant (and slightly obnoxious…) people, I thought to myself “Why did my family ever have to leave this place?” It was so peaceful, especially up at San Rosalie on Mount Pellegrino. However, I guess this is my chance to bring it home with me to my family and friends. I will always have some Sicily in me. Besides it being in my blood, I now have it in my mind and heart. Sicily offered me some of the best memories I have had this year, and it will continue to do so with many many people in the future. From the days of the 6th century BC until now, this island has made such positives impacts on all peoples, and has kept its tradition and love for life strong even through its hard times. It is an island that is just as eternal as Rome, and its corners will always draw people back to its mystery and beauty.
This is why I am proud to be a Sicilian.