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.”

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Sicily: the crucible of continents (Part 1)

Genius of Palermo
Genius of Palermo

In Palermo stands a statue of an ancient king holding a snake. With its fangs bared, the snake suckles at the king’s breast.

This unusual image is called Genius of Palermo. (In this instance, genius means protective spirit.) At least six similar statues decorate the town. Even though the king-and-snake image is Palermo’s emblem, no one seems to agree on its meaning.

One of the statues may provide a clue. A Latin inscription at its base, paraphrased, says that Palermo feeds its visitors and eats its own.

Certainly, the city of Palermo and the island of Sicily have fed many foreigners.

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The 433-Step Program

Second Temple of Hera, Paestum

The tiny rail station at Paestum was deserted.

Located a few miles outside of town, the building is not much more than a hut in a pasture. No taxis or buses waited outside to transfer me to my hotel. The ticket office was closed. The few passengers who disembarked along with me seemed to evaporate into the dusk. No one around to ask for help.

Night was approaching and, with it, the cold. I stood outside the station with my two carry-on bags, looking helplessly down the empty road in the direction of town.

I was stranded.

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Siren song

Faraglioni, Capri

The sea between the Amalfi Coast of Italy and the island of Capri was once the haunt of the mythological Sirens. The Greeks depicted them as birds with beautiful human faces; the Romans as mermaids. Their songs of seduction proved beyond resistance to the sailors of passing ships, drawing them to their deaths on the rocks below the cliffs.

The Greek warrior-king Odysseus wisely plugged his sailors’ ears with wax, then had himself tied to the mast so he could safely experience their alluring music. However, as his ship passed the Sirens, he was transfixed by their singing and frantically pleaded with his men to release him. They refused (perhaps they couldn’t hear) and disaster was averted.

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Cities of wind and stone

Cathedral of Siena
Cathedral of Siena

The Tuscan hill town of Volterra was labeled a “city of wind and stone” by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His description could apply to any Italian hill town, perched as they are on rocky summits.

The attraction of hill towns is their isolated positions, built to defend their residents from attack. They are places of refuge, both long ago and now.

Access is intentionally difficult. As a result, hill towns remain somewhat frozen in time. Their vertical topography prevents them from sprawling, unlike the communities in the valleys below.

Transporting modern goods and conveniences uphill requires extra work and money. Comfort is harder to come by in hill towns and, therefore, more precious.

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Riding the rails in northern Italy


I have been moving through Europe by different modes—plane, bus, rental car, metro, and ferry. Of them all, the train is the easiest and most pleasant way to travel. No check-in or security. No navigating or expensive parking. Before arriving in Italy, I purchased a rail pass online, good for any seven days of my choosing during a two-month period on the country’s primary (and unfortunately named) rail line, Trenitalia.

Of course, leaving Venice requires a boat, in my case an early ferry to the train station. Gabriele, the hotel manager, fixed my breakfast. He had been up all night anyway, filling in for the night manager who was stranded at an airport due to a strike. (Strikes occur frequently in Italy.) At the station I had the start date on my pass validated and boarded the train.

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Venice: the impractical, seductive fixer-upper

Doge's Palace
Doge’s Palace

Like an old family home, Venice is too expensive to maintain, yet too special to let go. Its beauty enchants you while its slow disintegration breaks your heart. Tourism may be its only salvation.

And so they are selling selfie sticks by the handfuls on Piazza San Marco.

Crowded and noisy most of the day, Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) is perhaps the least representative corner of Venice. It’s the beachhead for the must-sees—the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica of Saint Mark, and the Campanile (bell tower). Long lines all day. Small cruise ships unload thousands of daytrippers hourly. Tour groups with earbuds follow their flag-waving leaders through the crowds. Tourists with bread crumbs pose with swarming pigeons. Dueling orchestras play at the outdoor cafés. The waiters look like young Al Pacinos, mannered and impeccable in their white dinner jackets.

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