Daughter, Caroline, chose a visit to Sicily as part of her 40th birthday celebration. Her birthday was in June; she and her sister, Andrea, enjoyed an early birthday celebration on the El Camino in lower Galicia in May. Mother and daughter left London for Sicily September 20th. What a perfectly beautiful time to arrive in Sicily: delightfully sunny days in the mid 20’s, warm waters, few tourists. We would have 10 days.
The Birthday Girl
We chose to locate on the west side of Sicily, south of Palermo in the little town of Trapani (pop. approx. 64,500). Andrea (our family travel consultant), found us an apartment in the old section of town, on the narrow peninsula. It was a bit of a shock when we entered. It was 10pm and we found ourselves engulfed in a dark cavern-like dirt floored basement. This large set of apartments with inner courtyard was partially gutted. It was under renovations. To her credit, our very gracious and helpful landlady, Francesca, used her flashlight to direct our eyes to the ceiling motif in the vestibule. A 9th century coat of arms designed in a white rococo-type plaster motif was being preserved.
The building looked like 19th century, but obviously there was more to know about it. We were a bit disappointed to have an inner apartment with no outside facing windows, but it was two bedrooms with bathroom, kitchen and seating area; and we were very comfortable. It was easy to see that the renovations would create a graceful preservation of 19th century town living.
Inner views of apartment
Out on the narrow streets one could look to either end of a cross street and see the Mediterranean on both the port side of the peninsula, as well as, the breakwater side. A cool breeze kept this old section of town, with its old buildings (typically 4 stories) cool and very livable.
View of Trapani
Tourists love it. The three main streets are lined with shops; bakeries cum coffee or gelato shops; and restaurants. Lingering along the streets is a favorite activity. Real red coral is a product of Sicily and is to be found in very beautiful jewelry settings. Food holds a special place in the hearts of Sicilians, making a visit an epicurean delight. My favorite dish was a Sicilian pasta with a tuna roe sauce… the rusty, red roe was pressed, dried, then grated.
“[Old] Trapani is a town of a thousand balconies. There isn’t a house, it seemed, that doesn’t have a box of wrought-ironwork festooning its façade; some of the boxes are straight-sided and straight-laced some bulging and blousy, some with geometric diamond shapes, some with filigree as delicate as lace.”
Buildings in the old town
In our tromping around we discovered: “[a] Trapani of cultured Europe, with handsome, wide boulevards… lined with palaces that dated from anywhere between the 16th and the 18th C.” Some of the palaces lining these streets are large and imposing, others are “more like town houses dressed up”.
Old Trapani is wrapped around a coil of narrow streets, as tangled as the mesh of the fishing net. This tangle of narrow streets is the old Arab section. As we exited a restaurant one night early on in our visit, we stumbled into these alleyways. It was an immediate, “Where are we?” “It has the unmistakable feel of a suburb of Marrakesh or Tangier.”
The Arab quarters
It seemed centuries earlier than our own neighborhood, and its lighting acted as a lure into a mysterious labyrinth. Don’t you just love to wander in new places and discover the unexpected all on your own! It was only afterward that I came across a description of these alleyways.
Clearly Sicily is not just European. It is actually closer to Tangiers than it is to Europe and like in Andalucía, Spain, the Moors held power for several hundred years in the early Middle Ages. While I have not visited the rest of Italy, I wonder if this positioning and history is instrumental in creating the perils of Sicily. Unification with Italy has not worked for Sicily. Sicily grew in poverty whenever the power rested in Rome or northern Italy, as it does today. History shows the Mafia as a natural outcropping of this disenfranchising authority and poverty. I have no doubt authority had run amok too many times for Sicilians.
Remnants in Palermo of the authority of Rome
The Sicilian has a “level of kindness, of generous daily decency, of thoughtfulness, of simple grace” that is truly distinctive. I expected the caricature of the typically dramatic Italian. Not so: “Whatever their suspicions of the wider world, and the elliptical way in which they relate to it, when dealing with an individual, with a stranger, Sicilians seem unfailing in their warm-hearted kindness. I don’t know whether this makes Sicilians a good people, but it makes them a civil people, instinctively thoughtful and kind, with an inborn generosity that is extra-ordinary in its spontaneity.” This is such an apt description of Francesca, and many of the shopkeepers. I was also reminded of Joe, a fellow administrator I used to know; and a Sicilian. Only now do I understand his quiet way, even in times of emotional or political turmoil.
These qualities make the Sicilian vulnerable, I think. There is also a story about their not really wanting independence. Their history shows them thriving when the land has been well managed. Unfortunately, the traditional economy was feudal and only the elite held land. A feudal structure lasted until WW 1. Imagine! How to reconcile this gentle vulnerable Sicilian with the violence of the Mafia? It was much too short a visit to come to grips with the phenomenon. I am left with the knowledge that Sicily is perhaps one of the world’s most desirable patches of land, but with something quite nasty lurking in the shadows. It is surprising to note the thoughts that so easily trickle through your mind when you see a gathering of rich, showy people in a restaurant. Your mind immediately says, “Mafia!” Note the picture of the burnt out car in Trapani.
Burnt out car
It is a small town. How could this possibly happen? Read the books on the Mafia like MIDNIGHT IN SICILY – On Art, Food, History, Travel & Costa Nostra by Peter Robb (1998). Burning a car at the front door of an apartment is a common tactic. Then there was the ship of African immigrants that was burnt off the coast of Sicily this week, which I was convinced was not accidental. However, newspaper articles were very clear on the details of an accidental fire. Paranoia or intuition on my part? I cannot say. Another famous author on Sicily, Leonard Sciascia, once said that Sicily is a metaphor for the modern world.
Onward. Like the rest of the land bordering the Mediterranean, Sicily has layers of history thrusting itself forward into the present day. Trapani lies at the foot of a craggy hill, used throughout the millenniums. History on that mount starts about 6000BC. In the guidebooks they call Erice a Medieval town.
That hardly tells the story. While the guidebooks lead you toward the castle, what you find when you get there is simply a shell of a castle. The innards, which they have preserved, are the remnants of an Aphrodite Temple! Caroline and I would be tickled by the synchronicity of coming upon a dove as we walked our first few blocks into the old town. There it was cooing on a window ledge of a medieval home… we were to find out that it is a major symbol of Aphrodite.
We took 2 excursions: one down to Agrigento about 80 K to the south, to explore the ‘Valley of the Temples’… LOOK! It was stunning to walk amongst such triumphs of the past.
Temples at Agrigento
Our second excursion was out to the Egadi Islands part of the marine reserve a few miles off the coast of Sicily. We visited the islands of Favignana and Lerganzo. Both islands showed off cave dotted cliffs that were inhabited in Paleolithic times. A distinctive cave on Lergazo depicts markings showing the transition from random scratchings to actual drawings. While our boat stopped at the two islands so we could explore their port towns, it also stopped for us to swim off the boat! An oh-so-memorable Mediterranean day.
Caroline clambering onto the boat
Before visiting, I asked friends what they thought of Sicily. Every one I talked with had thoroughly enjoyed it. But this I came to discover, nowhere near was an adequate guide. It certainly is beautiful; it’s history is daunting in it’s capacity; and the food is ‘to die for’, as my British friends say. But I wonder if I would go back. I think not. While our short visit only scratched the surface on one side of the island and there is so much more to see… the city of Syracuse was said by Cicero to be the grandest of the Classical cities and rivaled Constantinople; the world’s largest site of ancient mosaics and frescos are revealed in a 32 room Roman villa near Agrigento. Yet, I think I have had enough. It has so much potential! I would love to be part of its re-development. Those palazzos on the peninsula in old Trapani are begging to be refurbished!
Old Trapani port
But I cannot imagine living for any length of time under the threatening possibility of Sicily’s lurking, violent underbelly. One is left wondering if it will ever shirk this persistent trauma. Oh Sicily! I cry for you! YET…
“I thought that maybe Sicilians, by and large, had a more profound understanding of what it means to be human than any other people I had come across…”
* It is interesting to note that both Caroline’s birthday celebration locations held the ‘trikelion’ image of the interlocked spiral. Both the image on the Sicilian flag, with its’ 3 legs spiraling around a center head of Medusa; and the old Celtic image of the 3 interlocking spirals found all over Galicia are ‘trikelions’ images. Caroline and I saw the same 3-legged, Sicilian flag image on early Greek coins displayed in one of Erice’s museums. (Must ask Caroline her interpretation of such the synchronicity!)
All quotes are from SWEET HONEY, BITTER LEMONS – Travels in Sicily by Matthew Fort. Thomas Dunne Books. 2009.