Sicily (1966)

                                        Viva Sicilia

In November 1966, Val and I took a driving vacation trip to Sicily with two of our best Italian friends, Mario and Silvia Tavella. The fact that Silvia comes from Sicily and had family in Palermo made in an extra special experience.

The first four days of the trip it looked like Val and I were not going to be able to spend any money on the whole trip. The Tavella’s relatives being very generous and strategically positioned along our route took care of everything. The fist night we stayed with a cousin of Mario’s who has an inn near Piacenza. Leaving early the next morning we were in Rome by noon where we had a marvelous dinner with Silvia's folks and went on to Naples arriving in plenty of time to have our car loaded on board the ship , get something to eat and depart past Sorrento and Capri on the overnight ferry to Palermo. We were very impressed by the lights of the bay of Naples as we left the land behind.

Palermo. We were met by Silvia’s uncle (Zio Nino) when the ship arrived at Palermo and took a get acquainted tour of Palermo before going on to their villa overlooking Palermo harbor and Mount Pellegrino in the background.  We had a big noon meal with Silvia's relatives, did some more sightseeing and then were again guests for dinner that evening with another set of relatives. Each dinner was like Thanksgiving-times-two . . . and wanting to be a good Americans (and enjoying everything immensely) . . we ended the day uncomfortably overstuffed.

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        Zio Nino with Val and Silvia                                                                                           Val and Mario with Mount Pellegrino in Background    

The group we ate with in the evening bears describing. It was like something from a novel. Silvia’s aunt is a widow and lives with her two daughters . . . one more beautiful than the next. The eldest daughter is married to a prince . . .. who used to be very wealthy, drive racing cars and head up a large business. Somehow the business went broke . ..and they’re now living in the near slums but still maintaining a few of the trapping of their former wealth . . . two magnificent tapestries on the wall, silver cigarette holders and clothes which they went to Paris to have made . . . all very incongruous. Rounding out the group was a doctor, the fiancée of the second daughter . . . another strange man with a bad leg who we never figured out . . . and an older gentleman who they had invited on our behalf since he had spent thirty years in the States and spoke English. It was an unusual evening of conversation. I remember at one point the prince saying he considered Sicilians more ethnically Arab than Italian.

The next day, while Silvia and Mario continued the tour of the relatives, Val and I saw a little more of Palermo on our own . . including the Cappuccini catacombs with its 8,000 ex-Palermoites neatly lined up in rows and rows of underground corridors each with a name tag hung neatly around their necks. Beautifully preserved, they say . . . relative to what I’m not sure . . .and we left quickly without find any of Silvia’s relatives. That afternoon we went to the nearby Cathedral at Monreale . . . a beautiful church completely inlaid with mosaics from floor to ceiling much of it gold. It is considered the second most beautiful church in the country (second to Ravenna). In a country so rich with churches as Italy, that’s quite a recommendation

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   The Cloisters at Monreale                                                                                                                                       The   Catacombs at Palermo

Greek Temples. We spent that night (Monday) in Erici . . . a Greek city high above the sea on the western tip of Sicily where Hercules encountered the Cyclops. The rocks that the Cyclops threw at the escaping Hercules can still be seen off the edge of the coast. The next day we saw our first Greek temples at Selinunte . . . for me the highlight of the trip in which each day brought a new highlight. The beauty and degree of preservation is amazing . . . but the best part was their isolation. We had them all to ourselves. They were situated on a rise overlooking the coast . . . completely alone and tranquil. I’ll always remember the shepherd and his flock of sheep that wandered past between the temple and the pounding surf below . . . somehow completing this timeless scene.

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       Greek Temple at Selinunte                                                                                                                                    Greek Theater at Syracuse

We spent Tuesday night in Agrigento . . .the location of the most famous Greek temples on the island. It is impossible to try to describe them . . . you’ll have to wait for the pictures. The next day was the Giorno dei Morti ((Day of the Dead) . This day is noted in northern Italy, too, but there in Sicily it’s second only to Christmas. On the eve of the holiday all the people were in town shopping for presents and toys for the children . . . to be left for the child that night supposedly from his relatives , who had passed into the next life. It struck us as a bit morbid. We’ll probably stick with Santa Claus in our family this year.

We ate very well in our week in Sicily sticking mostly to the local specialties where possible . . . though nothing terribly unusual . . . some good wines, good fish . . . once we had baby goat which is indistinguishable from lamb and was quite good.

Syracuse. Wednesday put is in Syracuse . . . once the proud rival city of Athens on the south-eastern corner of the island. In Syracuse there is a Greek theater carved out of a stony hill overlooking the sea and probably not much changed from the days twenty five centuries ago when the plays of Aesculus, Sophocles and other Greek playwrights were presented there.

From Syracuse we had planned to go to the top of Mt. Etna and peek down into the largest active volcano in Europe . . . but fog had closed the cable car so we contented ourselves by peeking down into some of the smaller nearby craters. You can’t see bottom.

Taormina. Our final day in Sicily was spend at Taormina . .. a lovely site with a view of Etna in one direction and mainland Italy in the other. It, too, has a well-known Greek theater, which had been in-turn remodeled by the Romans when they inhabited the town. We did our souvenir shipping there . . . Sicilian dresses for Jill and Marnie, a traditional Sicilian puppet for Rob and for us a beautifully carved section of a traditional Sicilian cart. The hors-drawn carts in Sicily are quite unique in that many are hand carved and hand painted by the owners. The enterprising Sicilians have taken to disassembling them and selling the pieces to tourists. .  so we found one that attracted us and will make a nice remembrance of the trip.

Calabria. We took the half hour ferry ride across the Straits of Messina on Friday evening and started up the Calabrian (the toe of the boot) coast the next morning. Four or five miles outside on of the little coastal towns be began to witness a strange phenomenon. We began passing individuals or families walking along the edge of the road usually leading either a cow, sheep or goat. Many of the women, barefooted and dressed in black, carried baskets of produce on their heads. As we neared the town, the numbers of these groups increased. We decided to see where they were all going.

It was the Saturday morning market which was held along a deserted strip of beach near this little town. . .and these people, may of who had started their treks before sun-up, were gathering there to buy, sell and trade their animals and other goods. It was like something out of the past . . . and we were intruders. We took quite a few pictures including one of Phillip astride his donkey . . . which we promised to send him when we have it printed.

Later that afternoon we reached the Amalfi coast drive . . . but whether it was because it had been a long day’s drive or whether because we’d seen other magnificent coastal scenery in both Calabria and Sicily . . . it didn’t really stand out. We spent the night in Sorrento. The next morning we found a local guide and spent the morning with him wandering around Pompeii. We were very impressed by it. By mid-afternoon we were back in Rome where we had a another nice dinner this time with Mario’s family. Monday we drove home.

The Flood. We had a brief detour off the Autostrada near Florence, which gave us a chance to see some of the flood damage of the previous week. Florence, was only a small part of the flooded regions. Fully one-third of the land area of Italy was affected . . . crops and livestock entirely destroyed and incapable of producing for at least two year. In U.S. terms it would have been as if the entire mid-Western grain belt was wiped out. The losses exceeded twenty percent of the gross national product . . . or about 2.5 billion dollars. The government raised the gasoline price from 69 to 77 cents per gallon to help begin reconstruction . The food prices will inevitable go up too as supply and demand begins to take effect. Perhaps the greatest loss, though, is in the numerous buildings, frescos and pieces of artwork in and around Florence that were lost and can never be replaced.

So, in the end, we made it home safely. It was a very interesting and enjoyable trip and we appreciated Mario and Silvia’s great company. One side effect . . . . shortly after we got home our neighbor, Sig. Negro, called up for something. Val answered, chatted for a while and hung up. "You know" she said, "That is the first time I’ve ever understood that that man was saying". Nine days in Sicily with Silvia and Mario, speaking nothing but Italian, taught Val more than she ever learned in all her previous Italian lessons at the Berlitz school!

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