Drowning in History (and Cannoli) in Sicilia

Three weekends ago I had the wonderful chance to spend three days traveling around the Italian island of Sicily. My grandfather’s family is from there, so it was exciting to visit my roots. Also, I have noticed since being in Italy that my grandma’s cooking is extremely influenced by Sicilian styles of cooking (since there are vast regional differences when it comes to food in Italy!). That being said, I could not have been more ready for a weekend of amazing food and beautiful coastal views.

Friday morning, I flew into Palermo, which is located on the western coast of the island. Upon meeting with the group of forty or so JFRC students and some faculty, we boarded a fancy coach bus to visit our first destination. A short drive up a huge hill brought us to Monreale, a small town outside Palermo that is home to a famous cathedral and bright sunshine. The Duomo di Monreale is a beautiful cathedral built in the 12th century and filled with marvelous mosaics. The outside is a bit strange, as the architecture includes both Gothic and Arabic influences.

When the cathedral was built, the image of Jesus as a slave was not something the church wanted to emphasize to its followers. For this reason, there are no crosses within the mosaics of the church, and the large mosaic on the apse of the church portrays Jesus as “the thinker.” I was especially enthralled by the skin tones used within his face, and the swirling pattern used to create it.

We got a short break to find lunch in the surrounding piazza, where we stumbled upon a small cafe with outdoor seating. Although I’ve been in Italy for two months, I will never quite get used to the strange and blunt actions of waiters in restaurants. When we walked up, the man working at the cafe told us we could get a lunch deal of chips, a drink, and a ham and cheese sandwich. When we asked to see a menu, he said “no.” Unsure of what to do, we sat down and waited for the lunches we were told we would eat. However, once the food arrived, we realized that we should have trusted our waiter, as the “sandwiches” were actually hot pressed panini and the chips were amazing french fries (with ketchup!!). My time in Italy has been full of strange and uncomfortable moments in restaurants, but in the end, the food is always good. Feeling a little better about our bizarre encounter, we stopped at a gelato place where I had the creamiest coffee and white chocolate gelato I’ve ever had.

We then visited the cloisters of the cathedral with the group. As a means of getting free tickets, the academic dean told us to pretend to be Roman students. After a few minutes of pretending to speak and understand Italian fluently, we escaped the employees of the cloisters and proceeded with our tour (in English, this time).

After a short walk down the hill, we got back on the bus and headed towards the ancient city of Selinunte. While many of them lay in ruin, Selinunte is home to eight early classical temples. The temple pictured is dedicated to Hera, where all of us got yelled at (extensively) in Italian for climbing on the ruins. Two sweet and sleepy dogs accompanied us on our hike through the ruins, where we had a view of the Mediterranean Sea. On a sunny day, we would’ve been able to see across the sea to Africa, but the mist covered our view during our visit.

Another long bus ride gave us the chance to nap until we arrived in Agrigento, where our first hotel was located. We ate dinner nearby at Trattoria dei Templi, where we had many different types of seafood that were incredibly fresh, considering our proximity to the sea. After a night of great food and wine, we retired for the night, with a view of Hercules’s temple in the distance.

Saturday morning, we began the day with a short drive to Valle dei Templi, a beautiful park filled with well-preserved ruins and temples. We spent time learning about the different temples and walked through blooming almond trees, all the time with a view of the Sicilian countryside. The temple pictured is said to be the site where Hades brought Persephone into the underworld, which was so exciting to see! We had lunch at a restaurant nearby, where we had giant pizzas and spent some time looking through postcards and other souvenirs.

A long drive to Piazza Armerina brought us to another ancient site: Villa Romana del Casale. Unfortunately we arrived late, so we only had 30 minutes to explore the mansion’s mosaics from 305 AD. The villa has been partly reconstructed on top of the ruins, which created the feeling that we were actually walking through a mansion. We wandered above apartments, banquet halls, and hallways, each adorned with images of animals, cherubs, and civilians. The mosaics were created by different artists in North Africa, so each piece had a slightly different style.

After a short bathroom break (in a unisex bathroom with no toilet paper, soap, or paper towels) and after being followed around by a wild pregnant dog, we all boarded the bus for our last city of the trip: Taormina. When we got close to the city, we needed to split up into 3 small vans to go up the hill, since the streets were extremely small and twisty. After a bumpy ride and almost rolling forward down the hill, we finally stepped out onto stable ground outside our hotel. We checked in and had a few minutes to freshen up until we walked 30 minutes uphill to get to dinner. Though the walk was tough, we got to walk through the city center, which was lined with beautiful shops and filled with Italians in costumes, beginning their Carnevale festivities. Dinner was delicious, and tasted just like something my grandma would make. I was elated to find food that tasted just like home in a place that was so new to me. After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and happily went to sleep.

We woke up early on Sunday, excited to explore the city and see the stunning coastlines. All of Taormina is situated within the mountains, so our views were beautiful no matter where we looked. We began the day trekking back into the city center to visit the Teatro Greco Taormina, a Greek theater dating back to the 5th century BC where tragedies and comedies were performed. On a sunny day, we would have had a stunning view of Mt. Etna, the active volcano in the area, just through the back wall of the theater. After taking some pictures and exploring a bit, we were free to discover Taormina on our own for the day.

We spent the four or so hours we had free wandering the streets of the city, which were full of restaurants, souvenir shops, and bakeries. Photos from the Taormina city center will be included in my next post. After buying some postcards and admiring the Sicilian ceramics, we stopped in a store filled with handmade coral jewelry. A sweet family that reminded me of my own ran the shop, and the glass cases were filled with pieces made from peachy coral and matte volcanic rock from the Mediterranean and Mt. Etna. We then stopped into a pastry shop that is infamous among the JFRC staff to try some cannoli. It’s no surprise that it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten – cannoli originated in Sicily! At that point, we were on a mission to try more Sicilian food. This time: arancini, my favorite rice balls filled with meat and tomato sauce. We finished our lunch with some gelato, because we were feeling revived by the food and didn’t want it to end. As we headed back towards the hotel, we got caught in some serious rain, and arrived at the hotel 20 minutes later entirely soaked. We got a kick out of watching all of our classmates come back, one by one, each person more soaked than the last. After everyone composed themselves, we headed towards Catania to catch our flight home. Even our experience in the airport was not complete without a few arancini and cannoli for the flight home!

I can’t effectively describe the feeling I had here in Sicily – it truly felt like home. Everyone I encountered was patient and kind, despite our fumbles in communicating in Italian. The food was some of the best I ever had, and the island was truly beautiful. As soon as I left, I knew I would miss it immensely, and I am so grateful I got the chance to visit my homeland during my time in Italy.

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