August 31 – We’re on Our Way!

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My husband Gino waiting for our flight in the SFO airport

Our flight took off from San Francisco on time. We arrived in Amsterdam where we transferred for Milano, then on to Palermo. All the flights were smooth and to-the-minute, but it was only in Sicily, when the wheels touched ground in Palermo, that the entire plane (filled mostly with Italians) broke into spontaneous applause. Immediately a cacophony of cell phone rings filled the aisles, and it seemed most everyone was answering calls from “Mamma!”

Geography Lesson – Sicilia

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Sicily is the largest and most important island in the Mediterranean, approximately the size of New Jersey. Its ancient name, Trinacria, reflects its triangular shape (the Trinacria is the ubiquitous symbol of the island today); the modern name, Sicilia, derives from the ancient inhabitants, the Siculi.

The island is separated from the Italian mainland by the Straits of Messina, a narrow section of water (1.9 miles at its most narrow) between the eastern tip of Sicily and the southern tip of Calabria. (Whirlpools that swirl in these straits have been connected to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis.) A common joke is that geographically, the island of Sicily is being kicked by the toe of the Italian mainland. Sicilians don’t appreciate this particular humor. In fact, they consider themselves first Sicilians, and Italians second. Famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe echoes this sentiment when he wrote, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”

Although you can easily see the Italian mainland from the eastern parts of Sicily, the island is, in fact, closer to Africa than to Rome. The Tyrrhenian Sea laps upon the northern shores, the south coast boasts the Mediterranean Sea, while the eastern shores look out upon the Ionion Sea, all rich in fish. Mostly covered by hills and mountains, Sicily’s fertile plains offer grain, vines, olives (lots of olives), and citrus fruit: oranges, lemons, and tangerines.

Smaller islands, reached by boat, dot the various coasts, some with smoldering volcanos. But in the east, the most famous volcano of all looms large, reaching upward 10,700 feet: Etna. Daily it decorates the sky from its smoking fumaroles and periodically spews fiery bursts of molten lava.

You can slice down the center of Sicily like a piece of pie. Trains and buses whisk you from Palermo on the north coast to Agrigento on the south coast in a couple of hours. But generally speaking, due to the island topography, public transportation is slow going; having a car to navigate this triangular paradise is the way to go.

September 1 – Palermo, Sicily

The first impression of Sicily as we were touching ground was, “We’re not in Sacramento any more, Dorothy!” The next thing that smacks your senses is how very Middle Eastern this land looks: the palm trees, the color of the buildings, the terrain itself. As we cruised into the airport, we could see a massive rock mountain (2,000 ft. Mt. Pellegrino) hugging the inland horizon; the Tyrrhenian sea lapped the nearby shore.

From Punta Raisi airport (aka Falcone-Borsellino, dedicated to Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia judges killed in the early 1990’s by the Mafia), an easy train whisked us into the busy city. We got off at the Orleans station where we knew that Giorgio, the proprietor of our B&B, would be waiting for us. He was there as promised, easily recognizable with a sign that said, “Giorgio’s House.” We made our introductions and he drove us in his little, if a bit dusty, car directly to the B&B where he promptly settled us into our spacious room overlooking what would prove to be a very entertaining street.

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A view through la Porta Sant’Agata, one of the old city gates of Norman
origin. This one lies in the Albergheria district, which is where Giorgio’s
house is located. This area was heavily bombed during WWII and
evidence of that remains. It is a poor district, but we never felt threatened.

Giorgio’s House is a B&B like no other. It’s a couple of flights up a rather nondescript building with a neighborhood market next door. We always opted to take the stairs rather than the typically minuscule elevator. Giorgio’s B&B feels more like a communal apartment with an impromptu family that changes faces every few days, but always with our host, Giorgio, as the constant figure.

There are three separate rooms, but two communal bathrooms, a little kitchen, and a sitting/dining room. There is a TV in the sitting room, but no one ever turns it on because there is so much else to do. A small balcony affords space for dragging out a couple of chairs, providing a ringside seat to the comical traffic circus of Palermo.

The sitting room is also where every morning Giorgio brings his dizzying variety of delectably fresh pastries and Sicilian specialties. He would set out pastries along with juice and coffee and then sit with us, talking about our plans for the day, our lives back home, or whatever subject came up. This is also when he would announce the evening’s plans for those interested in joining him on various local excursions. (Be sure not to miss these! He does not charge for these little tours and you will see Palermo and outlying areas in ways not possible to be seen without him.)

We arrived in Sicily in the early evening and so had time after settling in to root out a nearby Bancomat to stock up on Euro before the first excursion at 7:45. Another couple, Louise and Leo from north of Newcastle, England, would be joining us. We all piled into Giorgio’s little car (just enough for five), and he expertly maneuvered his way through the city’s legendary traffic and up the hill to Monreale, overlooking the valley aptly named “Conca d’ora” – the golden shell.

The main attraction of this hillside town is the Duomo (cathedral), built in 1172 by King William II. One of the most impressive Duomos in Italy (and that’s saying something), the walls are gilded with incredible Greek-Byzantine mosaics. This night, however, it had already closed, so we only surveyed the outside, vowing to return during open hours. As we trudged up and around the steep and cobbled streets, we passed a group of youths dressed in folk clothing who had just finished performing at some local event. We wound around and eventually arrived at little pizza place, where we sat outside and ordered dinner. I had “Pizza Siciliana,” after which Giorgio asked me if I now felt Sicilian. I replied, “Yes!”

We chatted with Louise and Leo from England. She teaches piano and they both own a feed store. But their claim to fame is their invention: the Portabowl — a self-filling water bowl for pets. Brilliant! (I have since checked it out online and it is indeed very clever!) They were both extremely nice people, and we had a great time sharing world perspectives. Leo’s accent is quite thick, and Giorgio kept having to say, “Sorry?” (Giorgio has a charming way of responding in the affirmative with, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…sure.”)

After pizza and local wine, we continued rambling around the town. I was pleased that Giorgio’s pace was not sauntering and we stepped at a good clip. We explored an area called Ciambra, a lush warren of plant-filled alleys, greenery dripping from the walls and balconies. I was so intrigued I couldn’t wait to return during daylight, especially to take pictures. Giorgio told us this was the section of town where the workers who had built the cathedral used to live. As we walked, I noticed how the stones in the streets were black and glistening — as if someone had polished and buffed them until they gleamed.

Back at the car, we stood at the belvedere which overlooked Palermo and admired the twinkling lights that carpeted the valley. On the return drive, Giorgio took us on whirlwind carside tour through Palermo. Gino nodded in and out of consciousness after the long day of travel and excitement.

We all commented that there appeared to be no discernible traffic rules. “Only psychological ones,” Giorgio confirmed. A native of Palermo, he declared, “This traffic is in my blood.” I commented how the traffic is like a puzzle: it’s all a jumble, but somehow eventually all fits together. Giorgio also told us that Italy has more written rules than many other countries. But because of sheer volume, these rules are almost impossible to enforce and thus, most everyone simply disregards them. (This sometimes applies to laws other than traffic.)

We arrived “home” about 11:00 that night. We were beat from the day of travel and regretfully declined Leo and Louise’s invitation to join them in a glass of wine from a bottle they needed to finish before they left the next day. The spirits were willing, but the bodies had given up. Back in our room, the air was hot so we flipped on the overhead fan, opened the window, and popped in earplugs to shut out the noise of the street below.

September 2 – Going to Cefalú

At 6:30 a.m. my eyes flew open without help from any cranky alarm clock. With that delicious feeling you get when you first arrive at a new place, I dashed to the window and peered out into our first full day in Sicilia. Blue skies greeted my thirsty eyes. Across the street and down the next block, a flea market was unfolding. “Denio’s, Palermo-style!” I exclaimed to Gino. (Denio’s is our local weekly flea market.)

People were hanging clothes on fences and draping them over roofs of cars, spreading goods out on the sidewalk and on makeshift displays.

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Around the breakfast table with Leo and Louise (who were sadly leaving for home), Giorgio suggested Gino and I take a day trip to Cefalú since many sites in Palermo would be closed for Sunday. Since we had planned to visit Cefalú anyway, we took his advice and made this the day.

Armed with a map of Palermo, we found our way to the train station, wading through the growing flea market that spilled into the streets of the neighborhood. Aside from the impromptu tables sprouting up everywhere we looked, we passed apes parked along the streets, heaped with fish, green cauliflower, fruits, and fresh bread.

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An ape. Pronounced “ah-pay” and meaning “bee,” these are the tiny
three-wheeled cargo vehicles that buzzzz everywhere throughout Italy.

At the station, we boarded the next train to Cefalú, a quaint fishing village about an hour’s ride east along the coast. The train followed the edge of the sea and we clacked along, noticing the profusion of Fichi d’India cactus with its globes of rose-colored fruit hanging in clumps. It grew everywhere.

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Colors of buildings flashed by: cream, muted yellows, faded mustard, delicate pinks and salmon, all ranging from luminescent to dingy. The architecture reflected a unique blend of Middle Eastern and Italian.

Hillsides cascaded down to narrow beaches which met the Tyrrhenian Sea, swirling with sapphire, emerald, and turquoise.

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Cefalú

We soon arrived in Cefalú and made our way, like dogs sniffing for treats, to the old, pedestrian-only city center. With only a few pages pulled from a guidebook, we eagerly embarked on our treasure hunt of sites.

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One of the twin towers anchoring the facade of the Duomo, a magnificent Norman cathedral built by Roger II during the 1100’s. Legend has it that he built it in gratitude after being saved during a violent storm enroute to Palermo.

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Another view of the Duomo.

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It’s often hard to strike a balance between guidebook and instinct. You don’t want to miss something by not knowing about it (read the guidebook), but you also don’t want to miss something by having your nose buried in the guidebook (look up). That’s why I find it best to reread the guidebook pages en route to a destination to get familiar with the broad picture of a place then, once there, only refer to the book in order to hone in on your treasure. Once you have found your prize, you can then read the finer details (aloud to your partner is always nice) about what stands before you.

This backfired on us once at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We had arrived very early, before the crowds and in time to share the church with the floor polishers. We were discreetly milling around, stopping at various spots to wonder and admire in awe. Very quietly (so I thought) I read little excerpts out of our guidebook to explain what we were seeing. Suddenly, a sharp official-looking man clipped up to us and, much to Gino’s mortification, admonished us: “Questo e’ una chiesa — non e’ un museo!!!” he hissed. (“This is a church, not a museum!”) And off he strode in a huff. Chagrined, we tucked the book, and our proverbial tails, away. But later that same day we stopped in again to complete our visit. To our astonishment, we found jostling crowds, children dashing about, everyone speaking in loud voices. One lesson learned: if you come before the crowds, try not to be too conspicuous, even if you’re being very respectful.

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An unusual architectural detail we spotted during our ramblings through the town — although I don’t understand the symbolism, I found this delightfully whimsical.

Back to Cefalú… This is an old city dating back to the 9th century BC, although now it is noted for medieval monuments. We arrived at the main square, Piazza Duomo, with the Norman cathedral at one end, shops and a restaurant with outdoor tables along the sides.

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Continuing down the main street, Corso Ruggero, we also made sure to dive into the tangle of narrow side streets spinning off the main spine of town.

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Exploring Cefalú

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A colorful sign advertising a local puppet show. Puppetry is a common and traditional form of art throughout Sicily.

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One of the treasures we sought to find was the Lavatoio, an ancient stone washing area, said to be a leftover from Saracen occupation. Only a sign pointing down a curving stone stairway gave a clue as to what was at the bottom. Almost by accident we found it.

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Stone basins and a flume coursing with cold water provided a convenient place to wash clothes, as recent as a few years ago. Even while we were there, a man and woman waded into the rushing water to rinse off some dusty items.

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The tiles on the floor of this shop depict the Trinacria, the symbol of Sicily. This symbol appears on the Sicilian flag and pops up in the most surprising places all over Sicily. Trinacria means triangular, for the shape of the island and for the three capes of Sicily: Punta del Faro in the province of Messina, Capo Passero near Syracuse, and Capo Lille, west of Marsala.

The head in the middle is Medusa, indicating the protection of the Goddess Athena, patron Goddess of Sicily. The hair of snakes holding ears of wheat symbolizes the fertility of the island. By the time we leave Sicily, we will have seen it EVERYWHERE.

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At my urging, Gino ascends these steps leading up to someone’s home within this characteristic courtyard.

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No, this is not a window display of fruits and vegetables; it’s Marzipan. Marzipan is an almond sugar paste painted with food coloring and formed into food-shaped sweets. Shop windows everywhere in Sicily proudly display these traditional and very edible artistic creations. I never did try one. My teeth hurt every time I thought about it.

Down By the Sea

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We walked to one end of town where the streets plunge into the sea and found a belvedere overlooking a meager beach. We could not take our eyes off the mesmerizing color of the sea.

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Italians love their beach umbrellas. You can bring your own for the public beach or concessionaires will rent you one, along with a lounge chair. This particular beach was just across the street from where we had lunch.

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Beneath the sign advertising “Apollo’s Beach,”
Gino poses as the Roman god himself.

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Takin’ care of business. After a long hard morning of sightseeing, Gino refuels.

Doubling back towards the beach, we had lunch at Ristorante Al Gabbiano, right along the lido (broad beach). It was excellent! I had misto mare della casa (mixed seafood of the house) while Gino enjoyed tagliatelle with gamberi and petto di pollo (pasta with shrimp and chicken breast). A bottle of vino (Cent’are Nero D’Avola Sicilia) topped it all off. While we ate, we chuckled about having had to dodge traffic in the “traffic-free zone.”