By Karen La Rosa
Can you give us a brief history of Sicily?
No. There is nothing brief about the history of Sicily! The island is smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, which means that it has always been the enviable jewel in the crown for anyone who could capture it. There were native people on Sicily, but in around 800 BC arrived the Phoenicians. Then followed Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Norman, French, Spanish, and then unification with the mainland came in 1861, making the country we now call Italy. People don’t realize that Italy has only been a country for 150 years. Truth be told, it is a land of regions, and Sicily is one of 20.
What makes Sicily a great & different destination compared to other Italian cities?
Many things, but to boil it down, it is diversity.
Each of the conquering populations stayed for a time on the island, some much longer than others, and some lived together with great tolerance for differences. All of them left things behind. In Sicily, there are the world’s best Greek ruins, and among the best Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The Arab-Norman architecture was recently awarded UNESCO status in and around Sicily’s capital, Palermo, and on the eastern side of the island, a very distinctive Sicilian Baroque is visible everywhere, having sprouted following a devastating earthquake in 1693. The Arabs brought the ceramics we now associate with Sicily. The Spanish added refinements. The Spanish built Palazzi and many are still owned by the ‘noble’ families. Visiting the public ones is like entering a completely different world. Sicily’s classic and fabulous novel, “The Leopard” talks about the time of transition from an island owned and ruled by nobility to a more modern society.
Apart from the visible testimony to the past is the food. It is said that some of Italy’s best is prepared in Sicily and you must experience it to believe it. Just imagine new groups of people arriving to Sicily’s shores to live. What do they do? They bring what they love and need to live; olives, grapes, lemons, sugar, eggplants and tomatoes, to name a few. Greeks brought olives for oil and the Romans perfected how to press it. Arabs were the first who made pasta, and Sicilians still eat cous cous. Arabs dried grapes, (zibibbo is the Arab word) and we use that process now to make sweet dessert wines. It goes on like this and it is the stuff of books. Suffice it to say that if you look at any Sicilian menu, you will see that it reflects a very complex culinary history in which everything is prepared with the freshest, most seasonal items. Simplicity and time is the secret. A revolution and celebration in your mouth all at once.
What are your favorite things to do in Sicily?
I have so many, included in which is simply zipping around in a small car, seeing places off the beaten path and adoring the scenery. Sicily was viewed as Paradise by the Arabs and any drive will offer breathtaking vistas, from the starkness of the rock formations jutting up into the piercing blue sky, to rolling terrain, and of course a volcano, the largest and still active lady responsible for abundant fertility. It is an island and so the sea has huge importance in addition to great beauty. People ski on Mount Etna and see the water below. It’s amazing. More particularly I love visiting wineries and learning about wine history. I also love heading to a farm in the early morning and eating freshly made, warm ricotta cheese. It’s the stuff of dreams.
What are some cultural differences or customs that are surprising about Sicily?
When you arrive in Sicily there is an immediate sensation that you are in a very different place, not like the rest of Italy or any other Western place that I’ve been. Much has been discussed about the island mentality, the fatalism that comes from being conquered again and again, but there is also something else. Here is where Slow Food began. It speaks to an appreciation of nature and life. In Sicily, the hours between 1:00 and 4:00 are still observed as sacred family time. Lunch is the main meal, prepared after the morning market visits. If you walk through town, it will fill your head with the smells of pasta cooking and chatter, sounds and smells carried by all the fluttering laundry overhead. Families eat together. They walk together afterword and greet neighbors. The men converge in the piazza to discuss. The word urgent does not exist in their lexicon. What could be more important than time to share around the table?
Tourism is on the rise in Sicily. The G7 meetings will take place in Taormina this May. Palermo was named Culture Capital of Italy for 2018, and the important European biennale Manifesta chose Palermo as host for next year. In addition to all the attention coming to Sicily, the island is slowly and finally shedding some of the negative impressions that have plagued it for some 100 years. A trip to Sicily will be an eye opener. This I can guarantee.