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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Sicilian Adventure

Sicily, I learned, is a land of churches and granita. I don’t mean to be simplistic, perhaps you were expecting a darker, more sinister description. That isn’t the case, the Sicily of today is in some ways more like it was thousands of years ago-except with some modern conveniences—some. The roads—not so much. With the exception of the Autostrada, perennially under construction, many—perhaps the vast majority of roads outside of the larger cities are winding, switchbacks barely as wide as two cars—small European cars at that, and in the frequent medieval and baroque towns can be narrower than any vehicle save a Vespa. It is not without charm but can be stress inducing even for confident drivers—and things such as stop signs and rotaries are essentially an opportunity to test your appetite for risk. But I digress.

On a recent visit I found Sicily embracing again the role it played for thousands of years—supplier of foods to the world—including many that we particularly savored such as Almonds, Pistachios, Capers, magnificent if underrepresented wines, fresh from the sea and still gasping Sardines, and so much more—and of course, a new crop, tourism. Tourism was not exactly what the Phoenician's, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Bourbons, Normans, and a half dozen other assorted peoples were after. They came for the wheat, the food, the trade and to sack the place.

Churches—and their precursors representing many different faiths, are abundant. In fact, based on personal experience I would hazard to guess that even the smallest of villages sports at least a half dozen and larger towns and cities count their churches, cathedrals, duomos and chapels in the dozens and hundreds. Many of these were built on or integrated with former mosques, Greek and Roman temples, and other structures dating back to early AD or in some cases BC. As such, some are ancient, while others relatively modern due to a devastating earthquake in 1693 that leveled great swaths of Sicily. Time has a different scale in Sicily-modern is post 1500's. That insight is underscored by the geology of Sicily, carved by the sea, created by earthquake and lava, with rich and fertile soil, Sicily is mountains and coastlines, steep hillside towns and rolling hills, and terraced vineyards. It is also a place of some extremes. In just two weeks we saw three active volcanoes erupting before our eyes, Etna, Stromboli, and Vulcano, the latter two the vestiges of a once mightier than Vesuvius goliath of which the Aeolian Islands are all that remains.

Granita? Well if you have never tasted this amazing confection you should make a note to put it on your bucket list. It is a kind of flavored ice—not what we know as Italian Ices and definitely not sherbet. The tastes—mostly derived from fresh fruits as well as the ubiquitous pistachio and almond, are dense and awesome. It is commonly served for breakfast—yes, that's right, as well as any other time of day that suits your fancy. It is frequently sandwiched, if you can wrap your mind around this, between the top and bottom of a slightly sweet brioche. Do not knock this till you have tried it. Granita is everywhere—even the coffee bars attached to the gas stations you’ll find on the Autostrada—though not in any churches as yet. Granita is as common as coffee--extraordinary coffee the making of which is apparently learned at birth by every Sicilian. One cannot have a bad cup of coffee anywhere in Sicily.

The churches are Sicily’s museums in a manner of speaking. The arc of their individual history describes the history of the island, its various if brief periods of domination by other than indigenous peoples and their architectural and religious influence. They served another purpose as well as worship, as a focal point for the community—often a location around which the palazzos of the aristocracy were gathered—the center of a town square where the trades people and wealthy folk lived and, of course, the center of districts where the majority of the Sicilian people live. We admired the beauty—the craftsmanship and also the humility of some churches we encountered—most still active despite waning attendance.

I chose these two symbols to represent Sicily, the churches and the granita, for this reason: they reflect the people so beautifully. Austerity and even privation have characterized many hundreds-even thousands of years of Sicilian life and yet the people are open, loving, exuberant at times and proud, as well they should be. They are survivors—persistent in the face of ancient and more modern threats to their very existence—natural and otherwise. But more than merely survive, Sicilians enjoy, with evident gusto all that surrounds them—wonderful food, a largely temperate climate, amazing larger than life vistas, and well, life itself.

Even in the smallest of villages people you encounter will go out of their way to help a traveler. We stopped I one such tiny baroque village and saw nothing approximating a place to get a coffee. An elderly woman walking down a steep flight of stone stairs encountered us and asked if she could help us—at least that is what I was able to piece out, my Sicilian (a distinct dialect that is not Italian in any way) is virtually nil. Somehow, we managed to make our request for help known and this kindly woman went out of her way to walk us-albeit slowly- to the nearest osteria—unfortunately closed, though a series of encounters with others we met eventually led us to our desired destination.

You might ask what my theme is other than to paint a picture of this lovely country. It is this. Travelling, with all of its adventures and occasional trials, offers a perspective one cannot obtain by any other means. You need to know, mix with and experience other people firsthand —learn what they value, how they live and who they are. We came away treasuring our time—vowing to eat better, live slower, laugh more. We’ll hold the memory of those we met: a young family who are third generation almond farmers and their precious newborn, several guides including two archaeologists, a volcanologist and a wonderful couple who showed us around the island of Salina by land and boat, a larger than life chef who took us around the market in Ortygia and taught us how to cook a beautiful meal and many others we encountered along the way. They are Sicily and we are better for having met them.

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