Il Mare Nostrum (i.e. the ancient Roman for the Mediterranean Sea) is the inland sea that is surrounded by Europe, North Africa, Anatolia and Levant and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. In Our Sea, as it was also known in ancient times, there are more than 150 smaller and bigger islands known for their white-sand beaches and encompassing turquoise-blue sea water, opulent vineyards, magnificent wineries and splendid wines, divine nature, rich history and diverse cultures. We all have heard about and even have visited some of them like Sardinia or Cyprus, Corsica or Crete and of course, the largest of them all – Sicily.
S I C I L I A (S I C I L Y)
The island is situated off the toe of the boot and has almost a triangular shape and that’s why it’s often known as Trinacria (the Greek for “three” (treis) and “cape” (akra)). The island’s three points are depicted on the Sicilian flag and resemble three bent human legs (i.e. triskelion or trinacria) in the middle of which are the head of Medusa and its three wheat ears. The flag was adopted in early 1282 during the Sicilian Vespers of the city of Palermo against the French rule on the island (by the way, the rebellion was commemorated in one of Verdi’s best operas late in the centuries). Actually, it was in that period of time when the word mafia became known and popular, according to one of the legends. The word itself is of Arabic origin and means “refuge” and at that time of revolt it was related to the native tribes searching for a refuge on the Sicilian hills and opposing their oppressors. Thus the word became an acronym for Morte Alla Francia, Italia Avanti (“Death to France, Italy Forward!”), or also “Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela” (“Death to France, Italy Begs!”).
Nowadays the island is one of the most marvelous pearls of Italy. Apart from the opulent nature, Sicilia is rich in history. Trinacria is dotted by countless ancient Greek landmarks, the most famous one being La Valle dei Templi or “The Valley of Temples” (along the town of Agrigento) that represents the ancient Greek civilization in all its glory. It is the largest and biggest archeological site in the world (only 1300 hectares 🙂 ) that houses the ruins of Dorian Greek temples, necropolis, a part of an ancient Greek-Roman complex, fortifications, etc. combined with modern art sculptures spread out everywhere and the breathtaking views to the Mediterranean Sea from the San Gregorio plain. The plain is intersected by the Akragas River along which Agrigento was built. The ancient Greek town was known under name of Akragas and was one of the most important colonies and leading cities as well as a flourishing cultural centre of Magna Graecia.
The power and splendor of Great Greece is spread along the whole island. Going to the east coast one stumbles upon the ancient Greek ruins like the Greek-Roman Theatre of Catania and the amphitheatres in Siracusa (the largest ever built by the people of ancient Greek times) and Taormina (with the best and most amazing views to the Mount Etna in the distance which is the most active stratovolcano in the world).
The journey through history in Sicilia continues with a stop in ancient Roman times. The most remarkable site of that historic period is the Villa Romana del Casale with its Roman mosaics near Piazza Armerina,Enna. The famous villa possessed a true SPA centre (btw, SPA stands for Salus Per Acquam or “Health Through Water”) where the ancient Romans had a total relax in public baths (or the so-called thermaeandbalnea). Nowadays the villa in question is famous for two things. Firstly, it was the place where bikinis were first depicted. Proto swimsuits (bikini plus a top like a strip) appeared and were invented in the Roman Empire in the 1st–2nd century. But unlike today’s swimming suits, the ancient Roman ones were used for going in for sports only (athletics, gymnastics, dancing, etc.) for two reasons: the ancient Romans always swam naked and swimwear became popular for sunbathing and swimming much later in the centuries. Proof for all this is one of the rooms where 10 girls in proto swimsuits, doing sports, are depicted. And one more thing here. The primary source of Miss-contests could be seen in the villa as well, i.e. one of the mosaics shows the crowning of one of the girls in bikini with a wreath on her head. Secondly, the Roman mosaics in the villa near Piazza Armerina depict diverse scenes. One of the rooms there was used for organizing similar bunga-bunga parties with girls that have become so popular recently.
The island of Sicily offers a true journey in today’s times, too, especially to the sworn fans of Inspector Salvo Montalbano.Vigàta is the imaginary Sicilian town in Andrea Camilleri’s books such as “The Shape of Water”, “The Terracotta Dog”, “The Snack Thief”, “The Voice of the Violin” and all the rest. Also the name of the place is imaginary but all of the scenes with the turquoise-blue crystal water, the wild and divine greenery and the buildings in baroque style depicted both in the books and in the film are true and real. And do you know which the exact places are? Vigàta is the town of Ragusa, Montelusa is identical to the town of Agrigento while Inspector Montalbano lives in his house with an amazing sea view in Marinella which is Punta Secca.
Sicily has always been crossroads of cultures. It’s been invaded by various peoples and tribes through the centuries. All this has contributed greatly to the cuisine of the island, the ingredients and aromas used in local dishes. Principally, pasta, pizza and seafood are widely spread out all over the island, being part of Italy. But, probably, Trinacria is better known for its sweets and pastries as well as wine. I will open a bracket here. The southeast coast of the island is the birthplace of the small Pomodori di Pachino or Tomatoes of Pachino. The tiny tomatoes were grown for the first time in the town of Pachino near Ragusa and they resemble cherries and that’s why they are more often known as Ciliegino or Cherry tomatoes.
The island of Sicily produces 20% of the Italian wine. This is the single Italian region where vine harvest lasts 110 days during the year. The most famous red wine grape and wine for the whole island, i.e. Nero d’Avola, was first cultivated and the wine was produced in the tiny, southern town of Avola situated near the baroque town of Noto and beautiful Siracusa. Nowadays that wine is the symbol of Sicilia and one of the most famous Italian wines worldwide.
And let me end the trip on the island in a sweet way. Yes, Sicilian sweets are great in number and despite being native to certain towns they are spread out everywhere on the island. And here are some of them. La Cassata siciliana (the greenly delicious sweet of Palermo), Granita (the semi-frozen dessert of Catania), biscotti ennesi (the cookies of Enna) and of course, i cannoli sicliani (again the sweet gem of Palermo).
The latter are probably the most popular sweets of the island of Sicily. They are these little tube-shaped pastry desserts filled with sugary and creamy filling with ricotta, additionally decorated with a cherry (or a candied slice of citrus fruit, small pieces of chocolate or whatever) at both open ends and sprinkled with powder sugar or even with chopped pistachios. Yummy-yummy. I just love them. 🙂 And there are two legends that go with the appearance of i cannoloi siciliani. Here they are:
During the Arab domination there was an Arabic city called Kalt El Nissa or Caltanissetta which was translated as the “Women’s Castle”. The area was famous for having had numerous harems. It’s known that emir’s favouristes and concubines got bored and in order to amuse themselves they started to bake I cannoli which were with the shape of a banana, filled with ricotta cheese, additionally flavoured with almonds and honey. They chose that shape as an allusion to and worship of their beloved, gifted emir.
The second legend is related to the Carnevale season when il cannolo was prepared as a special treat. Actually, its form of a tube was invented as a joke by the natives of Sicily. Il cannolo stands for a “spout” from which water runs but in their case water was substituted by cream. All this was regarded as a fertility symbol.
By the way, some are of the opinion that the two legends intertwined. After the end of the Arab domination harems were shut down and all of the favourites and concubines got their freedom. The ladies headed to monasteries and brought the recipe of the sweets which they had seduced their emir with. Nuns adopted it and every year during the Carnevale they prepared these desserts of that shape with an allusion to their desires. No matter what the origin of i cannoli is, they really worth a try when one visits Sicily.
And finally, if you wanna continue your travel in Sicily, watch the short video here. Enjoy it, folks. 🙂
P.S.: The paragraph about LaVilla Romana del Casale is based on an article about Sicily I came across on the Internet some time back (a proposito, I have visited Sicilia some years ago but I didn’t have the chance to go to the villa) while the two legends about i cannoli were retold to me by a Tuscan guy, a friend of mine, a month ago. So, you have two options regarding the facts described above – trust me or look for further info on the Internet.