Heading south from the Bay of Naples and the Amalfi Coast we trained down to the largest island of the Mediterranean Sea – the infamous Sicily. Sicily is a fascinating blend of cultures, which has at various times been ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and the French. This gives it a complexity of character that we would discover was much different from mainland Italy.
At the crossing from the mainland, the train disconnects and boards the underbelly of a giant ferry before unloading on the other side! In a hostel in Palermo we were talking to some younger travelers, one of whom had fallen asleep during that part of the trip. He asked us, “how did we get across to Sicily? Someone told me there was a massive bridge across.” We all had a good laugh, though frankly before the crossing I didn’t realize that trains could just roll onto ferries so easily!
Jeff and Neda under the looming Mount Etna, Europe's tallest active volcano - note the dried lava on the ground around us!
Our first stop off the train was in the volatile city of Catania. Nestled at the bottom of the tallest volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world, Mt. Etna, Catania seems to derive its frenetic energy from the liquid fire that occasionally shoots into its skies. Pulling into town also brought back fond memories of one of my favorite shows growing up, The Golden Girls! Sophia is from Sicily and would often tell stories about Mount Etna and its eruptions. It’s funny that coming into the home of the Mafia you would think I would have the “Godfather” more on my mind, but instead I kept thinking of Sophia!
Catanians walk through streets built of volcanic rock while Etna sits in the distance
Etna Lunar Landscapes
While in Catania, we marveled at how much of the town was built from the igneous rock that spurts forth from Etna every few years. In 1669, the eruptions were so severe that magma wiped out a large part of the city. Citizens then took the cooled magma and incorporated it into their city – the cobblestones on the streets and blocks of their buildings. We took a tour of the region around Etna, gaping at the 3300 meter high volcano while walking around the lunar landscape of hundreds of craters that have formed from eruptions over the years. We walked through tunnels created by the lava flow and learned about how the people of Catania cope with this looming threat over their homes by fully embracing it.

The Catanians recognize that Etna is a danger to them at any moment, but they also appreciate the incredibly fertile soil that she provides and the mortar she produces from which they can build. We found it inspiring how they bring forth fertility from such destruction. A product of that fertility is the delicious wine they produce in the region from the Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nero d'Avola varietals. Another delicacy is the sweet eggplant, used to make dishes like “Penne alla Norma,” or penne with tomato sauce, eggplant, and salted ricotta cheese.
The Greek Theater in ancient Syracuse - dating from the 5th - 3rd century BC
The Ear of Dionysius
From Catania we headed south to Syracuse, one of the strongest cities of Ancient Greece and a competitor with Athens during that time. We spent just one night exploring the ancient ruins of the Greek city slightly outside of the town as well as in the small island of Ortygia, where the ancient city has been built over by generations of successive conquerors. Outside the city lies a beautifully preserved Greek theater, where the famous playwright Aeschylus is said to have premiered some of his tragedies. There is also an old stone quarry of the ancient town, which was used as a prison. It is famously called the “Ear of Dionysius” because the tyrant king is said to have listened to his prisoners speak from above via the chamber's well tuned acoustics. 

But perhaps the most interesting part of the city for us lay in the city’s Jewish history. In 1492, when Isabelle and Ferdinand completed the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, they also decided to expel all Jews from Spanish territory (which Sicily was at the time). A that point, the Jews had been a vibrant part of Syracuse’s history for nearly 1000 years so their forced removal was a gross injustice, albeit only the final one in the history of the Jews in Sicily (read more Jewish history in Sicily via the preceding link). 
The recently discovered Mikvah 18 meters below the city streets of Syracuse
The Fountain of Arethusa overgrowing with papyrus plants
Fast forward to 1994, nearly 500 years later, when the foundation of a building was being renovated to be made into a hotel in Syracuse. While digging, workers uncovered the remains of a mikvah, or ritual Jewish bath 18 meters below the ground that dated from at least 600 AD. When fleeing the city, the Jews had buried the mikvah (it took 5 truckloads of dirt to dig it out), most likely to prevent sacrilege from occurring there and in hopes of one day returning. The mikvah, believed to be the oldest in all of Europe, was used for ritual baths by both Jewish men and women. For women, they would fully immerse themselves after certain occasions like end of a menstrual cycle, after giving birth, and before marriage. The men would use it to clean themselves in preparation for the Sabbath. On an island surrounded by salt water, the Jews found an old Greek well that was fed by a freshwater spring to which to connect the mikvah so that within 24 hours all the water from a ritual bathing would be fully replaced by fresh water. It is believed that this underwater spring may also feed the famous Fountain of Arethusa located nearby on the island. It was amazing to learn how the entire mikvah chamber had been carved only with a hammer and a chisel, a remarkable achievement for the time. For us it showed the Jewish people’s dedication to this sacred place and also the connection to the land that we had also noticed in the people of Catania. Click here to read more about the mikvah.

The amazing Temple of Concordia in the Valley of the Temples
The telamons
From Syracuse we stopped for a night in Lentini to meet up with Lucio, a gracious Couchsurfing host who made us a homemade Sicilian meal and told us stories of the life in Sicily. Then we headed west to Agrigento, where more Greek ruins awaited in the stunning Valley of the Temples. The valley houses the remains of 5 Greek temples built along the ridgeline of the island to honor the Gods and greet homecoming sailors. The most preserved Temple of Concordia dating from the 5th century BC shoots one back in time to when Agrigento was a prosperous city-state engaged in trade and continuous war with the regions surrounding it. The more ruined Temple of Hercules measures about the size of the Parthenon in Athens while the completely destroyed temple of Jupiter would have been even larger! That temple featured giant “telamons” between its Doric columns which held up the ceiling of the enormous temple. In the town of Agrigento itself, which sits high above the valley, we enjoyed climbing through its winding streets and sampling some fresh Sicilian treats (including a very unique pistachio cous cous) from the nuns at the Monastero Santa Spirito

The altar of the Capella Palatina has Byzantine (note the gold mosaics), Arabic (note the geometrically intricate carved wooden ceiling), and Norman influences (the barely visible Romanesque columns on the sides)
The Cathedral in Palermo
We traveled north by train from Agrigento to Palermo, capital city of Sicily and fictional home of Sophia. Palermo is a fascinating city because it still retains traces of its Arabic heritage in addition to its Greek, Roman, and Norman influences. Palermo was an Arab city from 827 to 1071, after which the Normans managed to conquer it back and make it a part of the Byzantine Empire. We found the Cappella Palatina there to be a foreshadowing of our trip through Southern Spain with its heavy Arab Influence. Cappella Palatina, housed within the Norman Palaces built after the conquest (Palazzo dei Normanni) is a perhaps the most stunning mixture of Arab, Norman, and Byzantine art in the world. It combines beautiful golden Byzantine mosaics with muqarnas (Arabic style) ceilings and Norman doorways. The Norman Palaces were a snapshot of the opulence enjoyed by the ruling families of Sicily over the years.  

But the most infamous ruling families in Palermo are still very much present, though their power may be waning. The Mafia was born out of Sicily’s transition from feudalism to private landownership. When Italy annexed Sicily in 1860 it redistributed much of the land to private landowners, but newly formed authorities didn’t have the manpower or experience to enforce property rights and protect property from bandits. Thus were born the first mafia clans. The necessary evil of “protection” would later become a lucrative racket where local merchants had to pay for the protection of their businesses or suffer from the very people they refused to pay. We were surprised to learn from locals that 70% or more of the businesses in Palermo still pay for this protection – proof that the perception of the waning power of the mafia in the area may be fictitious.

Luckily, we didn’t have any run-ins with the mafia other than the stories about protection that the locals told us. When we asked one local what happened if you don’t pay protection he said, “first you just get wax or glue in the keyhole of your door. That is your first warning. If you don’t pay after that some accident will happen to your business – a fire or a burglary perhaps.” Makes small business in America seem a lot simpler, huh?

Fresh cannoli!
Other than talking mafia and visiting churches we spent our time in Palermo doing what we enjoy the most – searching for the local dishes. We went on a persistent hunt through the Mercato di Ballaro looking for the “Fabrica di Cannoli,” a family owned cannoli kitchen that supplies many restaurants with their cannoli. They have a small kitchen where you can get individual orders of the delicious desert and watch the freshly made ricotta and chocolate mix squirt into the fried cannoli shell. It’s like a delicious bite of heart attack! Neda also started to fall in love with eggplant as we enjoyed eggplant parmigiana and numerous other preparations of the nightshade. We ended our stay with a tasting of the local pasta con sarde, which is spaghetti with minced sardines, fennel, pine nuts, and raisins. Certainly one of the most interesting pasta dishes we had, though not at the top of our list to try again!

Ahh memories of Sicily - freshly made cannoli and a cappuccino :)
All in all, Sicily was a experiences in extremes. Noisy streets and even nosier people. Flavorful foods and wines and enough history to leave even the biggest buff bewildered. We loved our time there, but it was time to say goodbye to Sophia’s home and board the plane from Palermo to Seville to start our Andalusian explorations! A final quote to leave you with:

Rose: Did you know they have an egg named after you Blanche?
Blanche: Oh really? How is it prepared?
Sophia: Over easy.

To see all the pics of Catania and Syracuse, click here

To see all the pics of Agrigento and Palermo, click here:

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