Sicily in 2000

Around Sicily
in 30 days

When I went to Sicily in October 2000, I wrote four general emails that I sent to several friends. I am placing them here today because I would like to pass on to you readers some of the flavor and feelings I found as I traveled through Sicily. I know it is a bit late to do it in December 2006, six years later. But I am back working on my book on this vacation trip to Sicily and I feel it is an important time that I need to recognize as I have recognized my time in Spain in 2003 and beyond. Click here to preview and purchase Sicily's Historic Coasts. It is now available. You can also read a little more about Sicily's Historic Coasts here on Works and Words.

There have been a some pictures of Palermo and Monreale in this site for a long time, but no words. Click here to see the pictures.

So without delay, here is some words I wrote from Sicily in 2000.

Two messages from Palermo and Trapani combined

Greetings from Palermo, a city of small trucks, smaller cars, motorcycles, and motor scooters all contesting for the same narrow spaces in narrower streets, all at breakneck speed. Crossing a street is a war of wills--you stare down the drivers who stare you down and you just walk--and it works!

Not only are there modern city streets and stores but open markets with every conceivable food, cloth, or other merchandise in stalls lining ancient alleyways that pass for streets. Scooters shuffle through people looking at the wares in these alleys. Buildings are built on older buildings, which are built on older buildings still and it keeps going on.

One day I went cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo. Until then I had never seen such a magnificent building, save maybe the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. William II a Norman king of Sicily in the last quarter of the 12th century built a church so beautiful that one dare's not to capture it on film. It is a grand piece of art. My notes say, "It is not how long it is, it is not how wide it is, it is not how high it is, rather it is how delicately massive it is, how all together perfect a single piece of art it is. It is exactly what it is supposed to be." If there be such a thing as perfect religious art, this is it. I walked, I looked, I stared, I gaped, I gasped in awe at its beauty, at its size, at its unity, and at its silence (until the noisy tourists arrived). Mosaics clearly tell the story of the Bible in golden pictures. A giant Byzantine Christ Pantacrato (the Ruler of all) blesses all from the dome behind the asp. And now having said this, I have really told you nothing of this place.

And how about this? I forgot my film when I went to Monreale the first time. I returned the next day and took a lot of pictures. It's interesting that I was in a different mode--taking pictures as opposed to just partaking in the experience--I become some worker trying to capture the place when I photograph. It was no less a wonder-full place--it was just a different experience.

The next day I went by bus to the top of Mt. Pellegrino above Palermo to see the shrine of St. Rosalina, the patron saint of Sicily. It was a typical shrine. I enjoyed my walk down until the half way point when I realized I had left my guidebook on a post on the top of the mountain. The surprise was that when I returned to the site the next morning, the book was still sitting on the same post--Santa Rosalina must have been protecting it!

Trapani in western Sicily was the next stop, a spit out into the sea, an early Punic port. With that as a base, I visited to Erice, a very medieval town on top of a mountain just northeast of Trapani. A very early temple of Aphrodite sits on its peak, what a site--from its couple thousand feet or so you can see all the western third of Sicily on a clear day, and it was clear. Although I spent a good part of the day walking the narrowest and steepest of medieval streets, Erice's real draw for me was as a lookout to places I had already seen and places I was about to see.

The following day brought me to Sageste, an ancient Greek and Roman site in the middle of the western Sicilian mountains. No more than there and the thunderbolts flew--the gods of the Greeks didn't want me there. I retreated to a store. But I prevailed and after more than an hour of downpour, I was able to take in a very large unfinished temple--its columns and walls were there, but it was abandoned in the early 400s BC when the city was conquered by another city state, Salinas. What is left of the temple is still impressive.

Next was the museum of ancient Lilybeaum, for a view of "the only Punic ship ever recovered from the seas." I thought I had something to send to my friend, Tim, for his boating enjoyment. Well it was a bit of a let down: there was only the keel board and some supporting spars (beams). That to me a boat does not equal. But they say they have a boat. The peak of my day in Marsalla (modern Lilybaeum) was watching the waves at the western most point of Sicily. I like watching waves.It was a week before my next message

During that week I did so much that there is no way that I would ever be able to tell you all the details here. So let me rather present you with some of the bits.

I visited ancient temples, medieval castles and towns, and stayed on the lake where Hades is supposed to have abducted Persephone into the underworld. I walked up a mountain to visit a city. I passed vineyards as large as the square-mile corn fields in Sandwich, where I lived then in the middle of the mega-farm agriculture land of Illinois. And, believe it or not, I have seen cultivated fields of Prickly Pear cactus. They eat a lot of its fruit here and they use it for cattle fodder.

I have waited for hours on corners for too many busses. I have walked streets so narrow that a single Fiat 500 would have a hard time fitting through, but they fit. And other streets so steep you'd think no car could climb, but they do.

In Enna, the "navel" of Sicily, just before the end of the first half of my Odyssey, I visited the Alissi Museum and its outstanding collection of Greek and Roman bronze coins. That collection was one of the defining reasons for coming to Sicily. I was not disappointed. I have never seen such a collection of Syracuse bronze coins--and so many beautiful Roman Asses and Dupondii.

I composed this third message sitting on the Mediterranean Sea in Pozzallo on the southern corner of the triangle that is Sicily with the sun in a cloudless sky, the temperature in the 70s, and salty-smelling wind ruffling my shirt and messing my hair. I was relaxed and flowing with the current.

Remind me some day to tell you about the downpour I suffered one night returning to my hotel and the ten kilometers I walked to view the ruins of a Roman villa and its mosaics. There are a lot of things I could say here but don't have the time now so, some other day. Until then relax and let life flow to and from you.

The last Sicily report came from a weary traveler recently returned to his homeland

After making a quick stop in Ragusa, I spent three days in Syracuse, the home of Archimedes. I stood in a Greek theater where the likes of Pindar and Aeshcylus had some of their plays performed--what a powerful setting, what a well preserved building [not really that well preserved but it impressed me then]. Standing above the seating area, looking down into the orchestra, I felt as if I could have been Zeus ready to throw a thunderbolt down on the actors below. In Syracuse I was personally guided (read "watched by guards") through a fabulous collection of ancient Greek and Byzantine coins--many from Syracuse itself, the home the most beautiful coins ever made by anyone.

I took in a traditional tourist stop next. I usually avoid tourist stops, but I had to see what all the hype was about concerning Taormina--it was about a restful, peaceful spot in an absolutely intriguing setting on a mountain side. I loved it and walked for miles.

It was from Taormina that I had my first distant view of Mt. Etna, miles to the south, the largest and most active volcano in Europe. It continuously belched smoke and steam. Etna was my next destination. I first road around it on the Circumetnea railroad-it goes around Etna. Then I went up the south side to 8900 feet to within 6 to 10 miles of its summit. I sat on a pillow of sharp volcanic rubble in an eerie, barren landscape ("moonscape" really) away from most of my fellow tourists. I watched as steam and explosions of dirty debris burst from the peak in absolute silence save for the clinking of tourist shoes in the volcanic rubble and the sound of the wind in my ears and against the plastic bag I was carrying. The peak was too far away for its sound to carry to me. It did not look so far away, It looked menacingly close. [One year later Etna erupted in the very spot I was standing that day.}

I left Etna behind and headed for the volcanic Eolian Islands north of Sicily. I walked ten miles on the wildly beautiful and rugged Lipari Island. In one location I was able to see six of the seven islands lined up like soldiers across the Tyrrhenian Sea.

I completed the circle of Sicily with a stop at Norman King Roger's cathedral in Cefalu before returning to Palermo and a repeat stop at William II's cathedral at Monreale.

So now I'll have to watch how I cross roads; prevent myself from edging into the right-of-way; forget gellato (never!) and good espresso (ditto, never!); remember that American trains and busses do not move people around terribly efficiently, that the sea and mountains are not immediately at hand, that a 200-year-old house is a new house, that our culture goes back thousands of years, not just the 250 or 300 we keep track of herein the United States; realize that a real "narrow road" will barely let a Fiat 500 through (if that); remember that in places in the world some peoples houses are built on the foundations of 2000-year-old temples, official buildings, or homes. Yes, this month has infused another world into mine. I thank the universe for the opportunity.

That was how I saw Sicily as I passed through it at the beginning of the 21st century. It is getting close to time to revisit it.

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Copyright © 2000-2006 Mike Metras,