Sicily: the crucible of continents (Part 2)


(I’m with a tour group circumnavigating the island of Sicily over nine days, starting in Palermo and ending in Catania. Sicily was the crossroads for ancient Mediterranean cultures from three continents. To read “Sicily: the crucible of continents (Part 1),” please see the previous post.)

Before leaving Palermo, tour guide Jamie pointed out a sign on a restaurant’s front door that read Addiopizzo. It means goodbye pizzo, pizzo being the word for money extorted by the mafia for “protection.“ In Palermo alone, the mafia extorts more than $180 million a year from businesses. Around eighty percent of Sicilian businesses pay pizzo.

The grassroots movement, Addiopizzo, was started by five Palermo entrepreneurs who wanted to open a bar. Realising they would be asked to pay pizzo, they decided instead to fight. They developed the movement’s logo, organized pizzo-free community festivals, and covered the city with stickers that read, “A whole people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity.”

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento
Temple of Concordia, Agrigento

Although some brave early adopters of the movement suffered consequences, the movement has grown, now numbering over one-thousand members and thousands of Auddiopizzo consumers. The cause has spread throughout Italy and even into other countries.

Valley of the giants

We headed through rolling green hills along the southern side of Sicily’s triangle, passing groves of gnarly olive trees. Jamie discoursed widely on olive growing, coral harvesting and depletion, Marsala wine, revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, and mythology.

We stopped for gelato, served in a brioche, a buttery, eggy hamburger bun, instead of a cone. Sort of an ice-cream sandwich. I tried pistachio, the local favorite.

In Agrigento we toured the Pietro Griffo Archaeological Museum and the nearby Valley of the Temples. The museum holds nearly six-thousand artifacts, illustrating the history of the area from prehistoric times to the end of the Roman period. Particularly noteworthy is the giant statue from the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Giant from Temple of Olympia Zeus, Agrigento
Giant from Temple of Olympia Zeus

Zeus’s temple was built in 480 BCE to celebrate the city-state’s victory over Carthage. It was the largest Greek temple ever built, as tall as a modern eleven-story building.

Now only five percent of it remains.

In between its columns once stood giant stone figures resembling Atlas, standing twenty-five feet high. Thirty-eight of these giants were positioned around the temple, appearing to support it upon their shoulders.

The body parts of one of the fallen giants have been reassembled and loom over a conference room in the museum. Another giant lies on the ground among the ruins of the temple.

The Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest archaeological site in the world. The term valley is a misnomer, as the site is located on a ridge. Incredibly, the remains of seven temples are found along the ridge.

The star of the site is the Temple of Concordia, built in the 400s BCE. It is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world (the other being at Paestum). After dinner in nearby San Leone, we rode home on the bus, enjoying the nighttime view of the temples, illuminated high on the ridge.

Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale

Bikini girls and rice balls

As we drove through the picturesque areas of Pietraperzia and Caltanissetta in southern Sicily, we continued to discuss organized crime. Historians believe the mafia developed in the 1800s as posses formed to protect the interests of local landowners. During a time when local law enforcement was inefficient, the gangs settled disputes, enforced contracts, and watched over business interests on behalf of absentee property owners.

Despite Hollywood’s portrayal, the mafia is not about family, not an ancient society, and not hierarchical. It is simply a collection of criminal gangs. Mafiosi do not refer to themselves as either the mafia or Cosa Nostra. These names are the inventions of others. Each gang claims its own turf, runs its own rackets, and respects, up to a point, the rights of other gangs to do the same.

We arrived at the Villa Romana del Casale, built in the early 300s BCE. The Roman villa was once the center of a huge agricultural estate. In addition to the main residential rooms, the complex included thermal baths, guest rooms, a basilica, service rooms, and a dining room. The country estate of a billionaire.

I have seen a Roman mosaic or two, but never so many and so well-preserved. The villa contains the largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bikini Girls mosaic, Villa Romano del Casale
Bikini Girls mosaic, Villa Romano del Casale

The subjects of the mosaics include mythological stories, geometric patterns, everyday life, hunting scenes, and so on.

Most popular are the “bikini girls,” ten women dressed to exercise at the gym. Mosaic designs usually appear two-dimensional, but the artisans who created these were pushing the envelope, experimenting with 3-D and shadows. The mosaics are well protected under metal awnings that mimic the dimensions of the original rooms.

We drove through beautiful hill country, terraced with groves and orchards. Bright yellow wildflowers carpeted the fields. Orchards of cherry trees blossomed pink. We caught a glimpse of snow-covered Mount Etna. Our driver moved us laboriously through the tight streets of hill towns, often having to back up in order to facilitate oncoming trucks and buses.

We arrived in Ragusa, an ancient city once controlled by the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans. In 1693 the area was devastated by a huge earthquake, which killed around sixty thousand in the region and five thousand in Ragusa. Following this catastrophe the city was rebuilt.

Making arancini
Making arancini

To learn how to make arancini, we attended a cooking class at Ristorante Cenobio located within a former Capuchin monastery. Chef Giovanni worked under an overhead mirror in order for us to watch and duplicate his technique.

Arancini is a fried rice ball usually filled with meat ragù, tomato paste, and veggies.

With oiled gloves, we shaped the sticky-rice mixture into balls about the size of plums. Then, we hollowed out nests with our thumbs, filled them with the mixture plus eggs and cheese, and closed them. They were then coated in batter, rolled in flour, and deep-fried. We also fried ragusano cheese.

Throughout, Giovanni provided detail on the quality and uniqueness of the Sicilian ingredients used, in particular the importance of dry tomato paste. His accent caused much confusion and good-natured laughter. Ragù sounded like rabbit, batter like butter and so on.

Aztecs in Italy

Next day, we left Ragusa in the mist and headed to Modica for a tour of a 136-year-old chocolate factory, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The Spanish brought South American chocolate to Europe in the 1600s. They learned how to make it from the Aztecs.

Chocolate, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
Chocolate from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto

The shop, founded in 1880, makes award-winning cinnamon, vanilla, and chile chocolate in the original Aztec style. No refining of particles. No adding of extra fat. The cocoa and sugar are worked at a low temperature, resulting in textured chocolate. Like a Nestlé Crunch bar, only richer.

We donned aprons and hairnets and watched the process, then sampled various flavors, plus liqueur and hot chocolate. Sugar high.

We spent a couple of hours exploring the town of Noto. Like Ragusa, Noto was also destroyed by the 1693 earthquake. Its solution: rebuild the town in a different location. Jamie provided a description of Baroque architecture, a style the city adopted to great success when rebuilding. Noto is considered a showplace of the style.

According to mythology, Daedalus stayed in the city after his winged flight over the Ionian Sea, as did Hercules after his seventh task.

Noto Cathedral
Noto Cathedral

Mathematicians and puppets

Onward to 2,700-year-old Syracuse, where taxis took us across the bridge to the island of Ortygia. (No buses or non-resident cars allowed.)

Syracuse was once one of the major powers in the Mediterranean. Cicero described it as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.” It equaled Athens in size during the 400s BCE. Saint Paul and Plato once walked its streets.

And it was the birthplace of Archimedes, considered one of the greatest mathematicians and engineers of all time. Syracuse may be the only place in the world where you can buy an Archimedes T-shirt.

The island of Ortygia is the historical center of Syracuse, a delightful Old Town with narrow streets, broad piazzas, cafés, and shops. There, we checked into a hotel run by a convent. Dour sisters walked the hallways. I strolled around to see the Fountain of Artemis, the Temple of Apollo (the oldest Greek temple in Sicily, built during the 500s BCE), and the Cathedral of Syracuse.

The cathedral was built in the 600s CE around the Temple of Athena (400s BCE). The temple’s Doric columns, fourteen on the long sides and six on the short, can be seen incorporated into the walls of the church, which protected them over the centuries.

Ear of Dionysius, Syracuse
Ear of Dionysius, Syracuse

Jamie led us on a walking tour around the island, stopping for a while to provide background on the artist Caravaggio. One of his paintings, The Burial of Saint Lucy, is hanging in the Church of San Lucia Alla Badia. Caravaggio’s style combined realism and dramatic lighting, both radical at the time.

Next morning, as we walked to the bus for our morning tour, we passed through the market, freshly set with seafood and produce. Jamie ordered meats, cheeses, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, bread, cannoli, and wine for our picnic lunch on the hotel balcony (which we referred to as the nuns’ sunbathing deck).

We picked up a local guide, Liliana, and toured the Archaeological Park of Neapolis. The park has a Greek theater, a Roman amphitheater, and ancient stone quarries.

The Greek Theater, one of the largest ever built by the ancients, could hold up to fifteen-thousand people. Built in the 400s BCE, its seats were carved directly out of the rock. It probably saw the first productions of some of Aeschylus’s plays. (Aeschylus may not be the first playwright ever, but he is the first for whom any records exist.)

Later, those wild-and-crazy Romans modified the theater so they could flood the stage and conduct tiny sea battles. Liliana said the Greeks used theater to educate the community; the Romans to entertain it.

Syracuse Cathedral
Syracuse Cathedral

Near the Greek Theater are stone quarries, which were once used as a prison. The most famous is the Ear of Dionysius, seventy-five feet high, two-hundred feet deep, and only twenty-five feet wide. A narrow slit into the rock face.

We visited the contemporary Shrine of Our Lady of Tears. The church was built to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims drawn to a small plaster image of the Madonna, from which, in 1953, tears were said to emanate for three days. (Cotton balls, which have since wiped the face, are sold in the gift shop.)

Later, we walked to the puppet theater (Teatro dei Pupi), where Jamie explained the plot. Something about a knight on a quest, monsters, and magic potions. Lots of swordplay. All in Italian. A cliffhanger of a story, unresolved. We were not allowed to use flash photography. Was this so as not to distract the puppets? The puppeteers took a bow at the end, all of them from the same family.

The man who never was

Fish market, Catania
Catania fish market

Mount Etna dominated our view as we neared Catania. It is the tallest active volcano in Europe at nearly eleven-thousand feet, 2½ times the height of Mount Vesuvius. While Vesuvius fumes, Etna flares, most recently erupting in December 2015.

Catania is Sicily’s second largest city. Originally founded in the 700s BCE, it grew into a regional power in the 400s and 300s BCE.

In the late 1600s, disaster struck. Twice. First, Mount Etna erupted, flooding the city with hot lava and killing twelve-thousand people. Then, the earthquake of 1693 killed another twenty thousand. The city rebuilt its churches and palaces, using the black volcanic rock Etna left behind.

The fish market, La Pescheria, overflows the streets behind the main piazza every workday morning. Swordfish, prawns, clams, mussels, sea urchins, anything that swims. The cobblestones ooze with fish guts and blood. Nearby, carcasses of meat, strings of sausages, wheels of cheese, and mountains of produce jam the alleys.

Fountain of the Elephant, Catania
Fountain of the Elephant, Catania

We traveled up the slopes of Etna to tour the Benanti Winery. A small winery, it produces 150,000 bottles per year, all of which are pre-sold. The wine benefits from higher altitudes and rich volcanic soil.

Two of the owners, brothers, led the tour. We climbed into the vineyards to see their one-hundred-year-old vines. Antonio, one of the brothers, said, “If you want to be a millionaire, first be a billionaire and then invest in a vineyard.”

Earlier in the day, we toured a museum dedicated to the Allied landings in Sicily. Operation Husky was the joint British-American invasion of 1943.

Prior to the invasion, the British conducted a successful disinformation plan that tricked the Germans into thinking the Allies intended to invade Greece and Sardinia instead. Called Operation Mincemeat, it involved planting fake documents on a corpse left to wash ashore in Spain.

The corpse was a cadaver with a false identity, later referred to in books and movies as “the man who never was.” The Germans thought they had intercepted top-secret intel and began moving their troops out of Sicily.

Mount Etna
Mount Etna

On July 10, 1943, in the middle of the night, the British Eighth Army led by General Montgomery and the US Seventh Army under General Patton landed on Sicily’s south coast. More divisions were landed on the first day of Operation Husky than landed on D-Day.

In just thirty-eight days, the Allies captured the entire island, meeting weak resistance from the war-weary Italians. Patton and Montgomery arrived in Messina, just two miles from Italy’s boot. Although the majority of the German troops managed to retreat to the mainland, the success of the invasion was an important strategic step for the Allies, as they prepared to tackle mainland Europe.

On the last night of the tour, we gathered in Catania at the hotel’s rooftop café. With Mount Etna brooding in the background, we toasted to new friendships made during the tour.

Saluti to Aztec chocolate. Saluti to the man who never was. And saluti to the Bikini Girls.

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