Sunday, May 31, 2009

Back from Sicily

The lava fields of Mount Aetna were just one of the smokin' places I visited while in Sicily recently. Now it's time to go on a diet and get back to work!

Our guided tour took us all the way from Palermo to Naxos, through their surrounding areas and to points of interest in between (i.e. Mondello, Cefalu, Agrigento, Villa Armerina, Siracusa, Ortygia, Toarmina, etc.)

Here's the
slide show and some reflections on the experience...
Click on the image to access the gallery directly (enlarge, download, etc.)

It was great to move away from my usual travel itineraries: sightseeing in Asia in search of the exotic, elbow rubbing with local culture in Latin America, and the quest for the perfect beach throughout the Caribbean. Great to get back to serious touring in Europe.


· Never mind all that Godfather rot, Sicily is a magnificent ‘country’ with a highly evolved culture, really nice, upbeat people, a landscape to die for, a history to rival that of any other place and a relaxed, healthy vibe.

· Sicilians seem to eat a pasta dish at every evening meal. This makes sense because while inexpensive, pasta prepared with imagination and affection can be delicious in a great variety of forms. And it is so satisfying that the small meat dish that follows seems more than adequate. Satisfaction through accomodation and moderation - what a concept! It seems to me that I understood pasta for the first time on this trip. The sequence of the meal in which it is served, the portion size and the way it is presented, the variety one is eating at the moment (when it is a given that a meal, every meal, will include pasta)... all this defines pasta beyond mere food stuff as experience. By the way, I didn’t see many fat Sicilians while in Sicily traveling with Americans who might learn something from the Sicilian approach to food.

· (still thinking about the food) Pistachio is a popular flavor in Sicily. I remember it fondly from my boyhood. I had a wonderful Pistachio gelato cone in Taormina for about $2. 10 minutes of taste bliss under a hot Sicilian sun! Now when was the last time you had real pistachio ice cream?

· The delicious (although not pretentious – fussy – or even marginally expensive) Nero d’Avola wine is ever present at dinner tables throughout Sicily. It is grown within miles of where it is consumed by people who enjoy it matter of factly. Wine and food represent an unquestioned coupling in Sicily. And thus it apparently has been for millenia. Wonderful to note, too, that there doesn’t seem to be any association between wine consumed at meals and intoxication. I didn’t see any inebriated Sicilians during my travels there.

· Sicilians drive tiny automobiles that they deftly shoehorn into tiny parking spaces on their narrow streets. Interestingly, when there are no tiny parking spaces available they create their own by angling their little cars into free form spaces on sidewalk corners or other unused bits and pieces of real estate. No one seems to get upset by this or even notice it much, the police included. And of course, many Sicilians drive motor scooters that get even better mileage and involve even less difficulty in locating a parking space. Despite all the obligatory chatter from my companions about the 'crazy' drivers, I didn’t hear much honking or see anything in Sicily even remotely resembling poor driving manners or road rage.

- I was well aware before the trip that Sicily has been an important crossroads of civilization, that it has been conquered and settled by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Saracens, Romans, and Normans. I mistakenly thought, though, that it was just a fertile outpost, a profitable and strategic backwater. But I learned that this isn’t so. For many of these developers, Sicily was the site of some of their most important accomplishments. The Greek Temple of Olympian Zeus in Agrigento, for instance, was the largest Doric temple ever constructed, and Siracusa's Greek theatre one of the finest and largest of its kind, anywhere. Siracusa itself was one of the most important Greek city states and was once described by Cicero as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all." The cathedral of Monreale, too, (just outside Palermo) is such an important example of classic Christian architecture that its construction, particularly its gilded mosaics, rivals that of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and Basilica San Marco in Venice. As I stood in each of these amazing sites, truly, I was humbled as I discovered my understanding of things was so poorly informed. We don’t often speak about it as such, but travel is a mode of education – a powerful one!

· Our guide, Pina, took us on a great drive up Mount Aetna, one of the world’s largest and most active volcanoes. About half way up there’s a very popular tourist destination replete with restaurant and gift shop. The shop gives free samples of Fuoco di Aetna which translates as Fire of Aetna, a locally produced, high octane liquor. It is probably best to sample this popular souvenir after clambering up and through the lava field, something we all did and enjoyed immensely. The lava, as you are climbing up one cinder cone after another, is somewhat slippery, but the views of this other worldly landscape are wonderful.

Down the road is a ski area. Yes, there’s snow on Aetna. It is fascinating to watch people ride further up the volcano on the chair lift while way up top on the peak, the mountain actually gives off some geothermal smoke and steam.

One night from the front steps of my hotel a group of us looked up into the Sicilian night sky to see several orange dots winking at us. These were bits of fresh lava bubbling and gurgling away somewhere up above us on slopes that were otherwise not visible in the dark. As we continued our trip, visiting Taormina, Naxos, Siracusa and a raft of other little Sicilian towns located in the shadow of the mighty Mount Aetna, I was impressed by how the apparently happy and productive residents went on about their lives. They seem to be fully aware that a potentially unforgiving hand of fate looms above them continually, but choose to get on with those parts of life they can control and appreciate anyway. I think there’s wisdom in that.