The Heart of Sicily - and More

Prepared in 1998 by:

James C. Mancuso

Delmar, New York 12054 

This account of a guided exploration of The Heart of Sicily is totally the responsibility of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations associated with the tour and this world wide web site.

For the convenience of the readers, many hypertext links have been built into the text of this account. By clicking the mouse on any of the links, the reader may connect to those world wide web sites that give more information on the topic that is linked. Some of the sites to which the links connect provide excellent photos of the locations under discussion. In some cases, more than one site contains relevant information. In such instances, the same term is linked more than once<


Into the Heart of Sicily - Table of Contents
Making Our Way to The Heart of Sicily
Siracusa - Wednesday, March 4, 1998
Agrigento and Caltanisetta - Thursday, March 5, 1998
Monreale, Mondello, and Palermo - Friday, March 6, 1998
Viewing the World The Emigrants Left - Saturday, March 7, 1998
Taormina - Sunday, March 8, 1998
Piazza Armerina - Monday, March 9, 1998


Making Our Way to The Heart of Sicily

The young people of our family had made several efforts to arrange to spend some time together in Italy. For one or another reason, we continued to fail to effect a plan. When the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) announced its Heart of Sicily Tour in Fall, 1996, we agreed that we had been offered an ideal combination of price and convenience. Unfortunately for us, by the time that I inquired into the possibility of our joining the Heart of Sicily Tour, every post on the tour had been booked. The NIAF tour organizers promised that they would place us on the waiting list for their 1997-98 tours. As soon as we received notice that the NIAF was organizing the tours for the 1997-98 season, we booked for the March 2-10, 1998 tour. As things turned out, we managed to sign up a party of four - which included Susan and I, who had visited Sicily for several weeks during previous trips to Italy; Dennis, our son-in-law; and Bryan, a friend since our boyhood. Neither Bryan nor Dennis had previously visited Italy.

Alitalia Airlines can rightfully claim that a trip to Italy begins when one boards an Alitalia plane to fly to Italy. No other airline could reproduce the noisy vivace of the crowd heading for Italy. As one would expect, many of the passengers on the flight are returning home, following their pleasure or business visits to foreign places. In that Italy has exported millions of its citizens, the roster of any flight to Italy will include a sizeable representation of immigrants or offspring of immigrants returning to visit family or to immerse themselves in the culture of their forebears. Alitalia flight AZ1747, on the evening of March 2, 1998, carrying many persons who would participate in The Heart of Sicily tour, might have had a larger-than-usual contingent of Italian-Americans bound for Italy and an exploration of their history and heritage.

The international flight from USA to Rome ended in midmorning, and the continuation flight to Catania ended at noon. The tour staff guided the loading of the bus and tour members began to become acquainted with each other. During the 1½ hour trip from Catania to Caltanisetta -- the home base for our tour -- one begins to absorb the dramatic landscape of Sicily. As one leaves Catania on the cross-Sicily superhighway, one skirts the southern base of the 10,902 foot Mount Etna. The snow-covered, smoking peak immediately evokes the legends of Odysseus's encounter with one-eyed Cyclops. Polyphemus, who Odysseus blinded so that he and his men could escape from Polyphemus' cave. We are reminded that we are in the land of Greek mythology - The Odyssey and the 3,000 year old tales which have their setting on this fabled island.

Mount Etna's presence has other effects on the landscape through which the bus passes on its way to Caltinisetta.. One is surrounded by lush groves of citrus fruits, growing luxuriantly in the rich soil that has accumulated as a result of thousands of years of eruptions of the giant mountain. Since 1500 B. C., 100 such eruptions of Etna .have been recorded.

As the bus proceeds westward, our tour members can spot towns perched high on the hilltops. Fifty-six miles (90 km) west of Catania, as one nears Caltanisetta, the city of Enna stands out most dramatically. (The ancients clearly recognized Enna as the heart of Sicily when they referred to it as the umbilicus Siciliae.) The strategic location of such cities reminds the travelers of the historic necessity of locating cities on sites that could be defended easily. This treasured island, located at the crossroads of Mediterranean civilization, has been coveted and fiercely overrun by one after another invader -The Sicani, The Siculs, The Greeks, The Carthaginians, The Romans, The Vandals, The Byzantines, TheArabs, The Normans, The French, and The Spanish. By perching a city on a high hill the inhabitants could better resist the invaders - be they warriors arriving from the sea carrying fearsome weapons or be they mosquitos arriving from the swampy low-land carrying the organisms which cause the dreaded malaria. In short, the sight of the towns crowning the hills can remind many of the members of our tour of the history of their forebears.

Leaving the superhighway, and following the typical twisting road leading to the hilltop city of Caltanisetta, we have a sudden, dramatic view of the place where we will have the opportunity to relieve our travel-weary bodies. The modern lines of Hotel San Michele look very inviting.

On the first evening, our co-tourists begin to gather in the hotel lounge - refreshed by baths and relaxation. We share observations intended to overcome the small and large differences in cultural practices: the presence of that strange fixture -- the bidet - in the bathrooms; the insubstantial shower stalls; the unusual door locks; the light-blocking persiane on each of the windows; the cord hanging in the shower stall. We know that we will encounter one after another of these large and small, unfamiliar cultural artifacts; and that we will find it fascinating to explore the origins of and reasons for the local practices which differ from those with which we are familiar in The USA. Why do the Italians call their coffee shops bars? Why do they pay for their bar orders before stepping up to the counter to place their order with the bar persons? Why do they expect to have a fee paid for the use of toilet facilities? Why do men walk arm in arm? Why do people kiss both cheeks when they greet each other? How does that system of paying fares for buses, etc., function? What is the purpose of closing every enterprise from 1:00 P. M. until 4:00 P. M.? And how can one figure what an item is worth when he/she must deal with prices where a dollar is represented by 1,780 lire? Where do we find English language television programs on our hotel television?

In this way we represented a small-scale version of the constant encounter of members of diverse cultures. We certainly do not represent the kind of tragic confrontation that takes place on the large-scale, in places such as Bosnia and The Sudan. In this small-scale adventure, we can experience what the Italian immigrants experienced when they left their home to engage in their avventura in far off places -- the United States of America, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, and Canada. Like those immigrants, we can have the opportunity to feel the results of confronting novel cultural practices. On the small-scale, we could know the discomfort of needing to assess the values of our practices in contrast to the values of the practices in a different culture. Fortunately, many of us already had had the opportunity to experience some of those practices of the southern Italian culture which differ from the standard cultures which we experience in The USA.

On the evening of our arrival, the tour staff arranged for us to watch a videotape which gave a broad overview of the province of Caltanisetta, the province in which the city of Caltanisetta is located. As we watched the videotape, we could gain some perspective on how and why the city grew at this location. We could focus on the information that Caltanisetta prospered as an agricultural center as well as the center of the sulfur mining industry that once provided the area with a lucrative source of income. Noting that, we also immediately thought of the great Sicilian literary tradition in which writers -- Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia -- raised world-wide consciousness of the abominable conditions under which the sulfur miners worked. Our thoughts about the conditions of the sulfur miners fortified as we left the room in which the videotape presentation had been made, for in the hotel lobby we observed a very large painting of sulfur miners carrying bags of sulfiur on their backs. The narrator of the videotape had informed us that of over 100 sulfur mines had once functioned, not one now operates. With this knowledge, we can understand why so many emigrants from central Sicily made their way to Sicily's ports and their destination in far away places.

The videotape also raised our anticipation for our visits to the surrounding area, with its wealth of architectural achievements and its vigorous agricultural activity.

The conviviality accompanying a good dinner complemented by rich Sicilian wine, topped off our first evening in Sicily.

Siracusa - Wednesday, March 4, 1998

The next morning, Wednesday, March 4, 1998, found us departing for the historic city of Siracusa. There, we were joined by a guide whose facile command of the history of the city of Siracusa was immediately evident. As he discussed each site, he deftly elaborated on the site's relationship to the history of Sicily. He gave us superb descriptions of the conditions under which the region's immense quarry operations had been conducted in ancient times. He showed us the remains of the magnificent theater which the Greeks had built, and described in detail the development of theater, particularly of comedy, in the great city that the Greeks had built, long before the Romans came to conquer, in about 200 B.C. Our guide then did a superb job of contrasting the Roman amphitheater to the Greek theater, pointing out how the architecture of the theaters reflected the ways in which these two ancient cultures differed in terms of what they regarded as entertainment.

As we were gathering to board our bus for a return to the central part of Siracusa, I noted a listing of local businesses which prominently displayed the name Zappalà . As I was pointing out to Susan that that name was common in our home area - Albany, NY - our guide interjected to inform us that this name clearly derives from the Arabic. He pointed out that the ending ala refers to be Muhammadan designation, Allah. The name Zappalà refers to strength of God. Our guide pointed to another nearby bus which had on it the name Zuccalà. That name translates into will of God. We look forward to discussing name origins with members of the Zappalà family!

After a pleasing luncheon and a stroll around the harbor area of Siracusa our constant companion took us to the great duomo of the city. There we could see how the Christians adapted an ancient temple for use as a great church - a monument to the ways in which members of different cultures arrive on the scene and then adapt cultural artifacts for their own use. Those who observe this building can see clear evidence, particularly in the partially exposed gigantic original columns, that human ingenuity and achievement can be passed from generation to generation to be admired by all who come to see.

Agrigento and Caltanisetta - Thursday, March 5, 1998

On the third day of our tour we made the trip through the extensive vineyards which cover the territory between Caltanisetta and Agrigento. As we travel we can observe the vast tracts of land that are under cultivation to produce Sicily's three major products - olives, wine, and the island's famous gran duro (the hard wheat which is used to produce the flour that goes into Italy's best pasta). Again we are reminded of the continuous coveting of the rich land that produces those great staples of Italian agriculture. We also can observe the high hills and mountains which have been completely denuded of woodlands, and which have for centuries been used for pasture land. Observing this scene, we can understand why little water is retained in the island's soil and why shortages of water have been common. We see evidence of the consequences of sudden rushes of water washing out deep gullies. We can understand why rivers which once were navigable, so that the ancients could take their ships far inland, now carry little water. And we can understand why conservationists promote the planting of tracts of fast growing trees - the eucalyptus appearing to be the most highly favored as a reforesting tree.

After contemplating some of the results of human folly, we arrive at Agrigento where we are once again reminded of the great achievements of humans. Since the Greeks founded the city in the 6th century B.C., the city has been the home of great human thinkers - ancient Empedocles and modern Pirandello being the most famous. And, viewing the relatively well-preserved remnants of the temples that once surrounded the wealthy ancient city, we know that the area has been inhabited by skilled engineers, architects, and artisans. Once again, we were guided on a tour of the temple area by a lively, well-schooled guide who exuded enthusiasm for the human ingenuity which imagined and then executed the building of great works of architecture still in evidence -- the temples of Concordia, Zeus, and Hercules..

Returning to Caltanisetta we took the opportunity to enjoy lunch and to interact with the local people of the city. Some of us found our way to a small, family-run tavola calda, where we enjoyed a variety of authentic local dishes - braised rabbit, potato pie, etc - and interaction with the owner of the establishment who proudly explained the display of photos of her sons, who had won a local culinary contest. Others set off on a hunt for that superb Sicilian snack, arancini di riso - filled rice balls, deep-fried to provide a golden brown crust to contrast to the creamy rice and zesty filling. Another co-tourist, who once had worked as an optician, took the opportunity to introduce himself to a local optician, with whom he had a lively interchange, and who gifted him with a lovely ceramic bud vase inscribed with the name of the business.

In the latter part of the afternoon Constant Companion guided us on a tour of some of Caltanisetta's architectural monuments. A great pleasure of exploring Italy derives from finding, even in small and lesser-known cities, one after another example of human achievement - architecture, music, painting, ceramic work, intarsia, intricately designed and executed marble inlays, culinary excellence, food production, etc. Our tour of Caltanisetta's major monuments supported our view that the immigrants from even small Italian cities brought to the countries to which they immigrated an appreciation of those achievements. In their adopted homes they flourished as they took the opportunity to develop and to put into practice their appreciation of those achievements. One could spend a lifetime doing close study of the results of human achievement which exist in Caltanisetta. One example proved particularly intriguing. The Church of San Sebastiano, like many of the city's monumental buildings, is richly decorated in the baroque style. And, as in many of Sicily's churches, one can spend hours studying the marble inlays that cover vast surfaces of the church's interior. Just as woodworking artists create intarsia works by cutting and assembling multicolored woods, artists create these marmi misti works by cutting and polishing multicolored marbles into shapes which are then assembled into intricate geometric and representative designs. On the front of one of the altars in a side chapel of San Sebastiano, one sees a panel depicting many different multicolored birds -- cardinals, parrots, parakeets, birds of paradise. etc. Close inspection shows that the artist not only used the multi-colored marble pieces to effect amazingly accurate representations of both the male and the females of the species, but that each bird is identified by a swirling banner in which the names of the birds' species are written. In short, a teacher could use the altar front to give a lecture on birds of the world!

Monreale, Mondello, and Palermo - Friday, March 6, 1998

On Friday, March 6, we rode over the superstrada from Caltanisetta to Palermo. A day in Palermo can give one only a small taste of the rich life and history of Palermo. Nevertheless, anyone visiting Sicily must visit the great Monreale cathedral, officially known as "Santa Maria la Nuova". It is possible to argue that the mosaics in that great cathedral are the finest mosaics in all the world. Set over a vast expanse of the interior of this church, whose architecture clearly shows the Norman influence, are scenes depicting many biblical episodes. The great beauty of those mosaics results from a stunning combination of Islamic and Byzantine Art. The results that are produced by this combination can offer one of the finest examples of the rich creativity that can be achieved by a reasoned combination of the artifacts of two great cultures. The figures in the biblical stories, which could not be represented in Muslim art work, clearly show the influences of the Byzantine style. At the same time the design of the scenes masterfully evoke the biblical narratives which the artists depicted and set-off with frames and borders of intricate, colorful arabesque designs. As one of our co-tourists noted, "Anyone who wanted to preach, each Sunday, in this church would have an easy time of it. He could simply indicate the scene which he would discuss and the congregation could have a clear image of the biblical passage that provided the theme for the sermon."

After our visit to Monreal, our bus driver skillfully guided the bus through the hectic traffic of Palermo, and took us to the far western side of the city to the beach-side resort town of Mondello. Mondello has a long history of being an upscale beach-side community. There we searched out our lunch fare. Some of us gathered together various delicacies being offered by the tavole calde that line the beach area, and took them to one of the benches overlooking the sea and the beach.

After enjoying our lunch and our first post-winter taste of the seaside, we again boarded the bus and our driver, our guide, and Constant Companion took us for a bus tour of the central part of Palermo. In the center of the city we began a walking tour of the old section of Palermo. In the Piazza Pretoria we viewed the Pretoria Fountain, locally and more commonly known as La Fontana della Vergonia. The Palermitani take great pleasure in telling the story of how the fountain's statues of nudes had been installed when the fountain was built, thereby arousing the ire of some of the local nuns. The story thengoes on to tell that the nuns, wielding hammers, effected a crude surgery on the statues, which resulted in the removal of the offending genitalia of the statuary!

The walking tour included a visit to the famous Church of Matorana, another site at which one can study the great mosaic art which was sponsored by the Norman rulers who took Sicily from the Arabs. This church further illustrates the crossing of cultures in Sicily. To this date, masses following the Greek rite are celebrated in this church, reflecting the Byzantine influence which was highly visible during the time that the Normans affected their Sicilian conquest.

Those of our party who sampled the famous frutti di martorana - the ultra-rich marzipan made from almond paste and sugar - might have discovered that these delicacies were first made in the convent associated with The Church of Martonana, and that the word marzipan derives from the name of this church.

Our guides also took us to The Church of San Francesco, pointing out that this church was built during the lifetime (1181-1226) of the great Italian saint. The interior of this church contains some superb examples of the work pf Giacomo Serpotta. . Serpotta mastered the art of making statues using a kind of calcium paste -- a mixture of hydrated lime, glue, and marble dust -- which he shaped into beautiful baroque statues. In this church, his statue of The Virgin Mary offers a fine example of his work. Observing this statute made us all the more aware of the impracticality of attempting to see in one day the many outstanding examples of human achievement in Palermo. We know that Serpotta's masterpieces are to be found in the Oratorio di Santa Cita, and that there is no way that our one-day tour would have brought us to that site. We were happy, nevertheless, that our tour did take us through this old section of Palermo, where we could directly participate in the very lively commercial life of that city, while sampling some of the great works of art that have been installed over the centuries of the city's prosperity.

Viewing the World The Emigrants Left - Saturday, March 7, 1998.

On Saturday, March 7, our co-tourists took advantage of superb opportunities to take part in the daily life of the people of Sicily. Many of our co-tourists had arranged to visit the town from which their forebears had originated. Many of us took the opportunity to participate in an excursion to a small town to the southwest of Caltanisetta -- to the town of Milena.

On the route to Milena , we passed through the region which had once been mined for sulfur. As we passed one of the abandoned sulfur monuments, I had wondered how many travelers would associate, as do I, those abandoned mines with the monuments to philanthropy which one can visit in the USA -- New York City's Frick Collection, The Carnegie libraries of many of our country's cities, Washington's National Gallery of Art, etc. The names associated with these monuments readily come to mind -- Andrew W. Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Henry C. Frick, etc. Part of the great fortunes which financed those monuments was earned as a result of the labors of many Sicilian sulfur miners who, leaving those failing mines, made their way to the industrial northeast of The USA, where they mined the coal that fueled the great industrial buildup of The USA? How many books, paintings, statues, and buildings in The USA are directly and indirectly the consequence of the work, sweat, injuries, death, and disease of the people who left the sulfur mining area of Sicily to make their contribution to the industrial growth of the The USA? Perhaps, one day, the descriptions of a national treasure such as the National Gallery of Art will say "The East Wing of The National Gallery of Art was built as gift to our nation by Paul Mellon and the workers of The USA who made it possible for him to accumulate his fortune."

Any thoughts about Sicily-to-The-USA avventura were further heightened by the exceptionally well executed museum to the peasant life of Sicily that we visited in Milena. Those of us who agreed that we could follow the explanations given in Italian by our guide, Giuseppe Palumbo, toured an old peasant dwelling which was appointed just as it had been from the Middle Ages onward, until fifty years ago. Seeing the almost total self sufficiency of the people who occupied that dwelling, one could understand how the Southern Italians and Sicilians who had emigrated to The USA had managed to save so much of the small income which they earned when they arrived in The USA. Palumbo explained, in detail, the ways in which the typical peasant family; grew their crops; threshed their grains; cured their meats; made their bread; worked flax from its raw state, through the many processes that ended in linen cloth of various grades; etc.; etc. In effect, the members of every family had mastered a wide range of technologies which allowed each family to maintain a nearly complete self-sufficiency. By transplanting many of those technologies to the cities and towns of The USA, those immigrants could grow their small animals; nurture, harvest, and preserve the crops yielded by their compact gardens; build their own outbuildings; make their own wine; etc., so that each family could produce a large part of what they took to be the bounty of their new homeland - while harboring their monetary income so that they could realize the dream of buying their own real estate.

Giuseppe Palumbo is herein specifically mentioned, with some reservation in doing so, lest we seem to slight the other guides who served us so effectively. Palumbo is very active in the organization known as Pro Loco di Milena - an organization dedicated to increasing and preserving knowledge of the history of the region. In his capacity, Palumbo guides and hosts the stream of scholars who visit the region to gather materials which provide the data on which the history of the area may be written. It is known that the region was a center of the Sican and Sicul cultures which were present in Sicily when the Greeks established their first settlements on the eastern and southern sides of the island.

Palumbo guided our group to a site which particularly stimulated our co-tourists. Pointing to a spot high on a steep-sloped hill, near the recently excavated remains of a pre-historic village, Palumbo showed us the opening of one of two tombs which have been identified as the tombs of Mycenaean traders. The archeologists hypothesize that these traders would arrive from Hellenic cities and would travel up the rivers of Sicily, which were navigable at that time when a large part of the island was still under forests. When a member of these trading expeditions died, his colleagues buried him in the fashion traditional to their culture. Palumbo also pointed out that there is evidence that some of those traders settled among the aboriginal people, since there are indications that rectangular buildings were built among the round buildings of the original peoples.

Palumbo and several of his Pro Loco associates brought to the attention of our group two books, one of which our co-tourists should be able to access through their home libraries.

(1) Campbell, C. (1971) Milocca: A Sicilian Village. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Books. Campbell studied the culture of this central Sicilian town in order to provide information about the culture of the people who were immigrating from that region to The USA.

(2) La Rosa, V. (Ed.). (1997). Dalle Capanne alle Robbe: La storia lunga di Milocca-Millena. Milena, Caltanisetta: Pro Loco. This book aptly illustrates the in-depth regional studies which scholars are conducting througout Southern Italy and Sicily. The authors of the book's 48 chapters illuminate topics ranging from the excavating of aprehistoric site to references to the town of Milena, - once known as Milocca - in the literary works of Luigi Pirandello and Leonard Sciascia (who was born in the nearby town of Racalmuto).

No part of our trip could prove more fascinating and stimulating as our visit to this out-of-the way town, which has so consciously carried out the task of preserving records and illustrations of its history. Beyond this stimulation, however, the hospitality which the people of this town extended to us enriched our visit beyond measure. Examples abound.

Seeing my interest in the ways in which scholars and townspeople are making efforts to investigate, to record, and to preserve the town's history, G. Palumbo extended himself to present me with a copy of the recently published book, Dalle Capanne alle Robbe: La storia lunga di Milocca-Millena. I look forward to many evenings of working through the book's chapters, just as I did with a similar book about my grandparents' region - The Cilento; that part of Italy south of Salerno.

Dennis and I enjoyed a particularly rich bit of Milenna hospitality. Before heading for the museum of peasant life, our bus stopped in the center of town so that our co-tourists could replenish their morning supply of caffeine, etc. My friend Bryan and I had once shared several years of experience in bake shops. When we exited the bus, we made our way to a supremely inviting bake shop just across the street from where the bus had stopped. The proprietor of the shop, seeing our special interest in the beautiful products displayed in his showcases, invited us to share a glass of wine. For a variety of reasons, we declined. Thereupon, Bryan went off by himself. At that point, Dennis arrived on the scene, and I began to point out to him the variety of tempting breads which were on display. Dennis then noticed a rather attractive doorway, and believing that the doorway led to an area in which one could sit to enjoy eating some of the delicacies on display, Dennis pushed open the door. Behind the doors we could see an extremely attractive baking area, complete with the proprietress removing golden loaves from the ovens. The proprietor immediately invited us into the area for a closer look. Thereupon one of his friends appeared with a five-liter jug of wine, and began pouring out glassfuls. Meanwhile, the proprietor had cut off a large slab of pizza, and was warming it in the oven. There was no possibility of declining invitations to eat and drink. Then, there appeared from out of the oven a very large pan of roasted artichokes - the major agricultural crop which was being harvested at that season. After a round of lively conversation, several artichokes, two glasses of wine, and a slab of pizza, we joined our co-tourists to continue our tour of the area.

While we enjoyed this extremely spontaneous, most warm hospitality, Dennis and I witnessed a special enactment of totally delightful bit of local custom. A young man, of about 17 years, joined our impromptu party. (I later found that the lad was the nephew of the proprietor.) He approached the proprietor, who signaled him to retreat a bit. I caught Dennis' attention, and alerted him to watch closely the scene which was about to take place. The proprietor picked up a cloth which was available, and wiped from his hands the traces of olive oil which resulted from his having picked up and eaten one of the artichokes. Satisfied that his hands were properly clean, he then approached his nephew; whereupon they embraced warmly and exchanged the customary kisses on both cheeks.

At the usual mid-afternoon dinner hour, the townspeople literally stuffed us with their hospitality. We returned to the center of Melina, and entered a very attractive restaurant, La Lanterna. There, as guests of the Azienda per il Turismo di Caltanisetta, we dined sumptuously on a 12-course dinner of the very best of the foods which are local specialties - Warm, freshly-made ricotta,swimming in its own whey; Minestrone of zesty beef broth with chick peas; Tripe; Roasted soft pecorino cheese; Fried slices of dried ricotta, spiced with nutmeg; Marinated olives and mushrooms; Cavatelli under a rich sauce of meat, eggplant, greens, grated pasta, and tomatoes; Risotto with asparagus; Sausage; Lamb roasted with potatoes; Canolli; and Fruit accompanied by liqueurs. All of this, of course, facilitated by a steady flow of local wine and a convivial group of local people -- including Calogero Mancuso (Not related!.There are many Mancusi in central Sicily.)

Returning to our hotel that evening, we shared tales of similar hospitality extended to those of our co-tourists who were able to spend the day with members of their families in other towns. Surely, on this day, we managed to enjoy - both literally and figuratively - The Heart of Sicily.

Taormina - Sunday, March 8, 1998

On Sunday, March 8, 1998, we took the long ride to the fabled resort town of Taormina - located on the northern stretch of the east coast of Sicily. At Taormina those of us inclined toward doing the classic tourist activity - purchasing souvenirs -- had our golden opportunity. If a particular souvenir of Sicily could not be found in Taormina, it cannot be found, I am sure, anywhere in Sicily! On the particularly beautiful morning that we visited Taormina, we could thoroughly enjoy a walk through the extremely attractive Municipal Gardens which border the southern side of the promontory on which the town is built. The gardens produce a special delight because one can enjoy not only the garden, but also the superb scenes of the terrain below the promontory backed by the spectacular background scene of the smoking, snow-capped Mount Etna.

Several of us had a specific destination as we strolled through the garden. A friend from back home had suggested that if we would have the time to do so, we should visit an old friend of his, whose family operates one of Taormina's fine hotels. We had no difficulty finding the friend; and, once again, we experienced the kind of hospitality that one receives when carrying back to Sicilians the greetings of old friends and family. We relished the opportunity to meet the family of our friend, to share convivial company and the standard offerings of dolci and coffee, seated on the terrace of a fine hotel, from which we could look out over the sea, as well as toward the heights above the hotel. Steep faces of rock, topped by the famed Greco-Roman theater provided the backdrop for this sharing of introductions and greetings. As we parted from our new-found friends, we had no difficulty understanding why people from all over Europe return again and again to Taormina.

Taormina offers attractions in addition to its natural beauty, its hospitable occupants, and its most comfortable accommodations. When we were joined by another of the excellent guides that the tour operators had booked to accompany us at various points, we were introduced to the high points of the long history of the development of the culture of the east coast of Sicily. A quick study of a map of the Mediterranean Sea, and a knowledge that the early Hellenistic people navigated their ships by hugging the coast line and taking only the shortest, most safe, and well known routes across open water will lead one to understand that the earliest Greek colonies established on Sicily were established on the coast just south of Taormina. Taormina offered a particularly suitable site for a settlement. The high promontory could be defended easily. Ports and landings could be developed in the small bays immediately adjacent to the town. The surrounding lava enriched soil provided ideal fields for the development of agriculture.

Our guide took us toward the Greco-Roman theater stopping at suitable overlooks, and briefly explained the highlights of the local history. The theater, of course, offers an ideal focus for a discussion of that history. The architectural remains of the theater allow a knowledgeable person to explain the development and changes of entertainment tastes which accompanied the changes of the cultures that have occupied the town. Following our guide's excellent description, we could understand why the Greeks built their theater so that the audience could observe not only the action on the stage, but also the magnificant backdrop of the sea and Mount Etna. One could understand the ways in which theater developed from celebrations dedicated to Dionysius into the elevated explorations of moral issues which we now know as Greek drama. We could understand why the Romans would have modified the structure of the theater to accommodate not only drama and the typical Roman farce, but also the blood sport of the Roman arena. And, we can also understand why the theater, though having the appearance of being adaptable to modern entertainment forms, would raise the concerns of modern, safety-oriented impresarios. Putting aside those modern safety concerns, one can still fantasize the pleasure of reaching the theater just as the sun was rising out of the Ionian sea to illuminate the snowy peak of Mount Etna; anticipating the emotional tensions which would follow from watching a series of plays authored by the greats - Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, etc. - and then discussing the dramas with friends over a dinner of the succulent foods grown in the garden paradise that the Greeks had settled.

Piazza Armerina -- Monday, March 9, 1998

On Monday, March 9, 1998 - our last day of touring - we travelled to the area near the town of Piazza Armerina, to see the remains of a once grand summer villa. The villa, known as The Roman Villa of Casale, was built in the late 3rd and early 4th century A. D. as a country resort. After continuous use until the 12th century, the villa was buried by a huge mud slide. The main attraction of the villa is its expanse of mosaic floors, which offer an elaborate perspective on the thought and art of the Romans of the era in which they constructed the villa. The most famous of the mosaic floors contain depictions of women, wearing what we now call bikini outfits, as they engage in various exercises.

On that afternoon we returned to Caltanisetta to bring our visit to a close. Some of of our co-tourists tidied up their shopping. As we explored the men's clothing section in one of Caltanisetta's shops, we notice a print of a paddle-wheel steamer. The ship bore the name Cayuga. We were intrigued. How did this print of a paddle wheeler that once had plied one of New York State's Finger Lakes end up on display in the men's clothing section of a shop in Caltanisetta, Sicily? We discussed the print with one of the store's sales associates. He wryly commented, "Oh, Caltanisetta has been an international city for many decades. We have exported people all over the world! It is not surprising to find that we have contacts with the lakes in New York State."

Marcus Tullius Cicero, writing about 2,000 years ago claimed that:

Not to know what has happened before we were born is to remain perpetually a child, for what is the worth of human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

A rich addition to life awaits a visitor to The Heart of Sicily. Everyone, no matter the near-history of his/her family, will find that Sicily retains a 3,000 year-old record of the greatest of human achievements. The millions of people whose forebears were exported from cities and towns like Caltanisetta and Milena will relate to that record with special zest. Any visitor to The Heart of Sicily will have no difficulty understanding the ways in which his/her life is woven into the context of the web of civilizations..

This essay was developed as a part of the effort of The Albany (NY) Area Lodge of The Sons of Italy to make available material that will develop an appreciation and understanding of The Italy-to-USA Avventura. The writers of this essay and other text found on this world wide web site claim sole responsibility for the content of their productions.


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. The author, Jim Mancuso died on June 10th, 2005. We maintain this site in memory of all the things that he did for us.

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