Wednesday 3 May 2017

An Unfinished Business with Sicily

I visited Italy many times since I was a kid, but I never ventured further south than Rome.
Sicily was certainly uncharted territory for me.

Our Sicilian experience came after a one-month Northern Italian (Milano, Florence, Venice) and Amalfi Coast stay: the usual suspects for a typical Italian holiday.

Due to its geographical position between Europe and Africa, Sicily has acted as a gateway to travellers for many centuries. This mix of cultures left the island uniquely exotic, vibrant and eclectic.
Although a culturally privileged place, for many travellers, Sicily is often overlooked and simply left out of the Italian tour.

Our two weeks spent around Italy's deep south, left me hungry for more ... and I am not only talking about arancini, cannoli and granita. No, I am talking about the fascinating colors and smells, the medley of architectural styles and unique traditions this beautiful Mediterranean island has to offer.

A la Carte Paperie Sicily set is inspired by the beautiful village of Cefalù, a little jewel on the north coast of Sicily. The busy resort town not long ago was just a quite fishing village with a 700-year-old cathedral that rises above the medieval town. 
One of my all time favourite movie is Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso was shot on location at various points around Sicily, with Cefalú starring in several of the film’s most memorable scenes.

My husband took a photo from a distance before we arrived in the village. I used the photo for the illustration on the invitation back panel. For the set we used the beautiful blues and greens of the coast with faux-gold accents. We added details with olives and prickly pears that are part of the Sicilian landscape. We printed the set on Pearl paper as this paper has natural pearlescent pigments that would accentuate the gold effect. The envelope liner is reminiscent of the beautiful Sicilian floor tiles.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and to see the most of it, we decided on two home base towns : Palermo on the west side for the first week, and Syracuse on the east side for the second.

The first week we had a beautiful apartment in Palermo, find on Airbnb, in the city's historic Kalsa neighbourhood, above the promenade and a terrace known as Mura delle Cattive, existing since the end of the 17th century, overlooking the sea.

The promenade was destroyed in World War II (as most of Palermo) and abandoned to oblivion and unused until 1997 when the City started restoration and it was reopened for public use the next year. It is hard to imagine such a beautiful feature unused for decades. 

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, one of Sicily's most celebrated novelists, author of The Leopard  (made into a famous movie of the same name in 1963, by Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon) lived until his death in 1957 just next door, in the Butera 28 apartments.

Seeing the passeggiata in its new-found splendour, one can imagine the elegantly dressed aristocrats from Lampedusa novel getting out of their carriages for an evening stroll.

The terraces are private but the promenade has a few places where you can sit down for a drink or ice-cream - it was always busy with locals from 90 years old grandparents to babies in strollers even at midnight, any day of the week.

From top left: 1. Porta Felice; 2. Marionettes at the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino; 3. Fish stall at Il Capo market; 4. Palermo street with view of the Cathedral; 5. Chess players in Monreale; 6. Palermo street with laundry hanging on lines; 7. Chiosco Vicari Piazza Giuseppe Verdi; 8. Barista at Bar del Corso,Via Vittorio Emanuele, Palermo
Photos by A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved

Palermo, capital city and main port of the island, is decadently beautiful and raw and can become indigestible at some point. If you are travelling with small children - like we did - the dirt, noise and chaos might frighten you at first.

The chaos is everywhere: for motorists traffic signs are mere suggestions, once beautiful buildings are rumbling and are covered in graffiti, stray dogs follows you around on poetic alleys and self-proclaimed ‘security guards’ will make sure - for a couple of Euros - your vehicle is safe, as if the rows of old men sitting on their kitchen chairs all day in front of each building would not be enough to keep the area safe…
Piazzas filled with restaurants are always full and guests seems happy to be seated outside the pizzeria outdoor section in the dark alley at a table the staff just installed for them...

Losing yourself in a new city is the best way to truly experience it:  t
o feel Palermo's pulse while sharing unexpexted culinary treats visit a couple of street markets that sells everything from mysterious sea creatures to stigghiola skewers made of lamb intestines!

A great place (with or without kids) is the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette Antonio Pasqualino (Piazza Antonio Pasqualino, 5, 90133 Palermo). They have an incredible selection of marionettes around the world. With some additional funding the museum could be a knock-out attraction in Palermo. 
Its substantial collection of Sicilian traditional puppets is amazing. Any visitor to Sicily has seen them in shops and they may look like tacky tourist souvenirs, these marionettes are essential symbols of the Sicilian cultural identity. The marionettes are the major props in the Opera dei Pupi, a traditional form of Sicilian entertainment that dates back to at least the 15th century.

My youngest daughter bought a replica puppet using her small budget allocated for the entire trip, a lovely Angelica dressed in turquoise chiffon and armor.

In the midst of dirt and rumble the city is yet very interesting and emerges as a treasure trove of medieval and baroque architecture. 
Palermo is largely Baroque in style with some stunning elements of medieval architecture. In the 10th century a guy named Robert Guiscard of the House of Hauteville, must have been an extraordinary adventurer as he left his native Normandy and with his brother, Roger, won Sicily from the Saracens. The Normans stayed in Sicily for 130 years. 
The surviving monuments of the Norman-Sicilian style are breathtaking masterpieces, and can still be seen in the cities along the northern coast: the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, the cathedral in Palermo (with multiple reworkings), Monreale (just south of Palermo and totally worth a half day trip), Cefalù (also worth a one day trip that can be combined with either a couple of hours at the beach or a visit to the medieval castle of Caccamo) and Messina (the port that links Sicily to the Italian peninsula) - to name a few.

1. Cefalù Cathedral; 2. Monreale Cathedral, interior; 3. The Benedictine Cloister, Monreale, 4. Mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale, Sanctuary, Christ Pantocrator
Photos by A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved

Being in Italy and travelling with children a few beach days/ half-days are a must. Sicily offers beautiful beaches all along its 600-miles / 1000 kms coast. 
We visited the island in early August: it was hot and dry and these beach breaks were very welcome!

My favourite beach was hands down Mondello: clear, beautiful water and soft sandy cove beach just west of Palermo. It seemed very popular with young Sicilians and tourists as well and a fun place to get away from the chaos of Palermo and catch some rays.

Second place goes to San Vito lo Capo, a charming coastal town in the Trapani area about 2 hours drive from Palermo. The resort town extends below Monte Cofano, a high pointed limestone cliff visible from a distance.

Honorable mention goes to the beaches of Isola Bella (near Taormina) and Cefalù.

1. and 2. Cefalù Beach; 3. Beachgoer on scooter, Syracuse4. Bathers, Syracuse

Photos by A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved

Map of Sicily, A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved.

From top left: 1. Ragusa Ibla 2. Duomo di San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla 3. Plate at Contrade Sicilian Food, Modica 4. On the steps of the Noto Cathedral 5. Sicilian folk-art decorated car, Selinunte 6. Street with the cupola of the cathedral, Ragusa Ibla
7. Playtime at Giardino Ibleo, Ragusa Ibla 8. Card players, Modica 9. Roman Theatre, Taormina 10. Sicilian-style Spiderman statue, Syracuse 11. Old Shipyeard, Syracuse 12. Charming street in Ortigia, Syracuse 13. Syracuse Cathedral 14. Syracuse Market 14. 
Papier-mâché puppets, Ortigia, Syracuse, 15. Barber shop, Noto 16, Seafront, Ortigia, Syracuse; 

Photos by A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved

The East side of the island gives you Mount Etna (in eruption during our visit), and the unforgettable cities of Taormina, Syracuse, Catania, Ragusa, Modica, and Noto.

We based ourselves in Syracuse in a modern townhouse complex just outside the city's Belvedere district. 

Syracuse where Archimedes 
lived (I recommend to visit the Arkimedeion museum, my kids loved it) was one of the most important cities of the ancient Greek world, and the most important in Greek and Roman Sicily. It was also one of the most beautiful.

To discover Syracuse, lose yourself in the narrow streets of the old city, Ortigia, but find your way to the Duomo di Siracusa that was once an ancient Temple of Athena, whose doric columns and walls are still visible throughout the church. The baroque white-washed facade of the church in the August sun was so breathtakingly beautiful, I cried.

Situated right at the end of the Duomo Piazza, is the small church of Santa Lucia alla Badia with a Caravaggio's painting behind the altar.
My husband and I, are avid admirers of Caravaggio's work, and we are on a personal quest to view most of his known paintings that are on public display.
His work, "The Burial of Santa Lucia" is a beautiful piece and we felt lucky to see it in Syracuse.

Sicily's most famous resort town, Taormina, is full of restaurants and shops, great beaches nearby but it is also crowded with tourists. Try to enjoy the famous panoramic view of Mount Etna and the coast form the Greek amphitheatre and find a table at Bam Bar for a great granita 
siciliana (a sorbet-like ice-cream, in Sicily usually eaten in a brioche for breakfast).

You need at least one (very busy) day to visit a couple of Baroque towns of the Val di Noto: eight towns in south-eastern Sicily were all rebuilt after 1693 after a large earthquake in a harmonious and homogeneous late Baroque style. In June 2002, UNESCO inscribed these towns on the World Heritage List.

We first visited Ragusa where we stayed most of the day. The drive from Syracuse to Ragusa is about 1.5-2 hours. 
Very important: most churches close for lunch, so, if you arrive at 12 pm you must wait until 4 or 5 pm to see the inside of the churches.
We arrived at 11:00 and the time we parked our car, walked the steep streets and peeked into smaller (but beautiful) churches on the way to Ragusa Ibla's Duomo di San Giorgio it was 11:50 am. The door was shut and were told "Chiuso" (Closed). My husband tried to plead with the door guard but she must have beed very hungry and did not let us in. 

The outside of the church is beautiful and it dominates the centre of the town.

After spending the afternoon wandering around the streets of this charming town, enjoying  a great play time in the Giardino Ibleo with the girls, and eating a great lunch, we finally get to see the inside of the church - it was rather a disappointment, a dull and non inspiring interior.

The city has two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). The two halves are separated by the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges. 

Before leaving Ragusa, we quickly peeked inside the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista in Ragusa Superiore - the interior is grandiose and a very impressive frontage and terrace give you the opportunity to take a great photo of the lower town.

We arrived in Modica at night just in time for dinner. We had one of the best meals of our entire Italian trip in the Contrade Sicilian Food Restaurant.
We had no idea what a gem we find in a little alley. The restaurant is part of the Sicilian slow food movement. It was an outstanding choice.
We also tasted the famous chocolate of Modica, and all sort of things made of this chocolate, including liquor. Cioccolato di Modica is an Italian P.A.T., characterized by an ancient recipe inspired by the original Aztec recipe for Xocoatl, and was introduced in the the Spaniards, during their domination (1516–1713) in southern Italy.

We visited Noto one late afternoon. It is only a 40 minutes drive from Syracuse. The city seems much more touristic than Ragusa and especially in August the city was packed with people, tourists and locals as well. 
We climbed to the rooftop of Chiesa Santa Chiara, from where you can see much of Noto:
a breathtakingly elaborate baroque festival of churches and palaces in golden sandstone.
The Noto cathedral is on the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele and a couple of other baroque churches were also easily accessible form there.
We also had a glimpse into a Sicilian wedding when a young couple left the Town Hall at sunset.
I recommend to get some treat at Caffè Sicilia : a landmark cafe on the main street in Noto that serves amongst if not the best gelato in the world. Their granita ice cream flavours are both unusual and intense.

Sicily has the best-preserved ancient Greek architectural sites in the world (sorry Greece and Turkey), places like Agrigento, Segesta, Piazza Armerina and Selinunte, and there are lesser known sites as well.

As a trained archaeologist and art historian, I realize it is hard for my kids to travel with a mom who wants to show and teach them "all". Italy is particularly a "difficult" destination as it is the world’s greatest hoard of art treasures.

Luckily, my older daughter is fascinated by Greek mythology and history thanks to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. She was keen to see most of the Greek ruins as it was her first direct meeting with the Greek world.

A very hot day trip from Palermo to Segesta and Selinunte and a stop-over in Agrigento and Piazza Armerina when switching home bases from Palermo to Syracuse gave us the opportunity to discover these four sites.

The 5th century Roman villa of Piazza Armerina was one of the highlight of my Sicilian trip. Having just visited Pompeii and Herculaneum we were keen to see some real mosaics in situ and we certainly were not disappointed! 

Sicily was also a perfect introduction and practice ground as our Sicily stay came before the 3 weeks my family spent in Rome – hello Antiquity and Baroque!

Sicily took us by surprise most of the time, swept us off our feet a couple of times and left us wanting more... At home, people often ask me what was the most unforgettable place of our Italian trip and where would I go back. Without hesitation, I say, Sicily.

From top left: 1. 
The Doric temple of Segesta 2. Details, The Doric temple of Segesta 3. Temple of Concordia, Agrigento 4. Greek theatre, Taormina 5. Cheers from The Temple of Hera, Selinunte 6. The Temple of Hera from a distance, Selinunte 7. The "bikini girls" mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina

Photos by A la Carte Paperie, All rights reserved

Our Best of Sicily (family of four with two kids, 7 and 9)

1. Culture: Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana del Casale), Ancient Greek ruins of Segesta and Agrigento, Baroque Towns (Noto, Modica, Ragusa), Norman cathedral of Monreale, Ortygia (Archimedes Museum - great with kids), Syracuse Cathedral, Archeological Museum of Syracuse
2. Beaches: San Vito lo Capo and Mondello
3. Restaurants: La Baronia in CaccamoContrade Sicilian Food in Modica
4. Markets: Mercato di Siracusa; Mercato il Capo, Palermo (we preferred this one than the most famous Ballarò)
6. Espresso: Bar del Corso in Palermo 


1. Not staying in an agriturismo an independently-owned farm used for accommodation purposes for an authentic rural experience.
2. Starting our Sicilian stay in Palermo: looking back, I would start our journey in Siracusa and the East side of the island first and then, once "acclimated" to Sicily, go to Palermo.
3. Not meeting with enough locals.
4. Missing out of the Marsala wine region and the province of Trapani.


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