Travel in Sicily: Adventure Where You Least Expect It

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Fountains in Palermo, Sicily. Flickr/Martin Deane
Fountains in Palermo, Sicily. Flickr/Martin Deane

It happens all the time when I travel. I start out expecting one thing, and then I experience something I never imagined. Such was the case with a recent trip to Sicily with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). While we followed a set tour – in this case, Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions – I discovered so much more than what was on the itinerary.

Sure, I knew we would focus on the extensive ruins of the Greeks and Romans from the 8th century BC; the city market created by the Arabs in 900 A.D. which still operates today as it did then; the Norman Church built in 1174 which was proclaimed by acclimation of the trip participants as, “The most magnificent cathedral ever!”; a boat ride to a Phoenician island dating back 2700 years; and a powerful WWII Museum devoted to ending Italy’s Fascist rule. And that barely brushes the surface of the extensive itinerary that brought new adventures to our group of 16 day after day.

Then I found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing – and yes, often eating – that were NOT on the itinerary. I realized it even made the more interesting experience, because in all my travels with other tour companies, Learning and Discovery (L&D) is what sets OAT apart and elevates an already enticing itinerary into a far more expansive travel opportunity.

Palermo, Sicily. Flickr/Martin Deane
Palermo, Sicily. Flickr/Martin Deane

For starters, while exploring the capital city of Palermo, we stopped by a tiny, nondescript storefront with antique-looking sewing machines and irons. The owner is a tailor, so that made sense. How then to explain all the old instruments strewn everywhere? The tailor is also a musician. He sang along as he played a 50-year-old mandolin. Come for repairs; stay for the repertory.

As soon as we arrived in Castelbuono, a 14th century medieval village whose history dates back to the Arab influence of the 800’s, it was time for another discovery: a variety of Sicilian pastries washed down with samples of liqueurs ranging from lemon and cinnamon to tangerine and prickly pear. By this time, it was hard for me to work up an interest in the surrounding history, usually a passion of mine. Stopping for a “taste” can translate into a marathon multi-course mini-meal. So yes, often L&D has to do with food – which is understandable: aside from the Mafia, food is what Sicily is known for.

Artwork in Sicily. Flickr/Scott Wylie
Artwork in Sicily. Flickr/Scott Wylie

Because another OAT philosophy is its emphasis on controversial topics, a discussion of the Mafia was not unexpected. Meeting with Angelo Provenzano, the son of one of the most notorious Mafia bosses in Sicilian history from 1993-2006, was. Kept in hiding for the first 16 years of his life, he recounted the difficulty of separating his feelings FOR his father from his feelings ABOUT his father – and the impossibility of leading a normal life despite having no connection with the mafia himself.

It should come as no surprise that the Cosa Nostra is still alive and well in Sicily but fortunately not to the level that a Godfather IV is anywhere in production. In response to a question as to the accuracy of those films, Angelo replied: “Except for certain Hollywood effects, the films are basically realistic.” Angelo’s birthplace? The city of Corleone, of course. It was a name everyone in the room knew well.

Greek Temple in Valley of Temples. Photo by Fyllis Hockman
Greek Temple in Valley of Temples. Photo by Fyllis Hockman

In a local museum in the Arab city of Mazara, we viewed the Dancing Satyr, a Greek bronze statue from the 3rd century BC that was pulled from the sea in 1998 in the nets of some fishermen. As fascinating as the story was – an archaeological event that captured the attention of the world – it didn’t compare with the unexpected meeting with the boat captain who made the discovery. His story was even more enthralling.

Not to be outdone by the Arabs, the Romans and Greeks want equal time – so on to the Valley of Temples. Fifty-thousand Greeks lived here 2,600 years ago, and the remains of multiple temples constitute the second largest archaeological site in the world. One of the temples remains intact, while others have been reconstructed from original materials.

It’s so hard to fathom that anything can survive that long. And then the Romans came in 600 AD and built their own structures on top of the Greek ones. And they, too, survived. Our local guide stopped to pick up what to me looked like a number of rocks; he then identified them as a rooftop tile, a piece of pottery, a jug. Just lying there. Still, some 2,600 years later.

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