Sicily: Italy's Final Frontier
Published June 2016
Sicily defies all expectations. An island distinct of mainstream Italian culture, it clings to its rapidly-disappearing old world charm. For the traveler looking for an authentic Italian experience, Sicily provides just that.
When people hear I’ve traveled to Sicily, many of their reactions are the same. Was it dangerous? Did you see any mobsters? Did you need a security escort?
And I don’t blame them; movies like The Godfather have created an image of Sicily as mob-ridden and perilous. And while I’m sure the mob still has a significant presence on the island, they now run behind the scenes. They don’t wear the traditional suit and fedora, they don’t stake claim to the corner booth slurping spaghetti like Lady and the Tramp, and there aren't gun battles in the streets. Rather, the Sicily I saw was a mixing bowl of ethnicities and cultures, a conglomeration of Italian, Arab and African influences all mixed and mashed together to create a unique, independent society.
Sicily lies just off the southern border of Italy. The history of the island is as vast and colorful as its culture. Its first chronicled existence was as a Greek outpost, even making an appearance in Homer’s pre-Christian epic, The Odyssey. In fact, the south of the island houses more intact Greek temples than there are in Greece. In its complex history, it was home to the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans... you get the point.
This diverse background explains the environment of Sicily. The Italian mainland is largely homogeneous – consisting mainly of white, Catholic Europeans. Sicily, however, has a multitude of religions and ethnicities. North-African Muslims live next door to Caucasian Catholics, who eat in the same cafés as French or Spanish tourists.
These mixed cultural influences are most evident in Sicily’s cuisine. Whereas the usual Italian colazione consists of a cornetto and a caffe, breakfast in Palermo, Sicily’s capitol, is far different. Walking around Piazza San Domenico one Saturday morning, I felt my stomach begin to grumble. Anticipating the growing wave of hunger-induced rage that would quickly overtake me, I was on the lookout for somewhere to grab a little cibo. My girlfriend and I stumbled upon a small café in the center of the market. The smells emanating from the shop were tantalizing, teasing me with hints of yeasty breads, fresh-roasted coffee, and sweet cinnamon.
In front of the cafe sat a few miniature pallet tables and those tiny chairs only seen in preschools and daycares. I ignored this oddity as I followed my nose inside. A tall mustached man in an apron greeted me in the traditional Italian fashion. Buongiorno! I asked for un cornetto, to which the man chuckled. No mangiamo cornetti qui. What was an Italian breakfast without a cornetto?
Cual cosa mangi? I asked.
The man pointed to a display case in the front of the café. Inside were savory pastries filled with sausage, tomatoes, peppers, prosciutto, mozzarella di bufalo… everything but cornetti. I pointed to a thick, round roll stuffed with broccoli and a delicious-looking yellow cheese. Questo. I told the man. E un macchiato.
The man motioned outside to the miniature table and chairs. He laughed as he told us, espeta in fuori – wait outside. All the other customers were standing at the bar, sipping espresso and munching on pastries. We, the only Americans in the joint, were told to sit at the comically-tiny tables. So, we obliged. Let them have their laughs at our expense, I figured. This was all part of the Sicilian initiation.
The pastry was as delicious as it looked. A warm roll filled with rich, decadent cheese and crispy broccoli, washed down with a freshly-pulled shot of espresso. With my sanity restored and my hunger abated, we continued through the city. However, the deeper we ventured, the more I noticed how unfamiliar Sicily looks to the foreign traveler.
You see, Sicily is Italy’s final frontier. As the rest of Italy surrenders to the forces of Western Imperialism, adopting English as the widely spoken tongue, catering to American tourists with drip coffee and sliced pizza, Sicily refuses. Rarely on the island can you find an English speaker. The public school system teaches in Italian and Italian alone.
Following this reluctance to modernization, the streets of Palermo are narrow and rugged. The cobblestone is cracked and uneven, statues of saints and martyrs sit next to the graffiti that spreads like a plague on the city’s walls, openly condemning the corruption of the government, the influences of Western imperialism, and the Americanization of mainland Italy.
Palermo is, as the Italians would say, vivace. Music, crowds, shouting, sirens, the rumbling of a motorcycle’s engine – all reverberate through the streets day and night. We stayed in La Loggia, the heart of the city. Even in the safety of our apartment, we could hear the shouting and cawing of the open-air markets in the distance.
And rightly so. Palermo is famous for its large markets, stretching for miles along the narrow streets. La Vucciria is Palermo’s most famous – and most expressive – market. In local dialect, an adaptation of Italian, “vicciria” means hubbub. From the shelter of our apartment a half-mile away, the sounds of haggling and shouting still permeated the walls.
The buildings that border the market are gray and drab. When Palermo was turned to rubble in World War II, Mafia-owned construction companies built cheap concrete structures throughout the city. These buildings edged closer to the already-narrow streets, casting a looming shadow overhead. Perhaps in open defiance to these dismal structures, La Vucciria is colorful and eccentric. This market just might be the last one that still engages in abbanniata, a practice that emerged from Northern Africa where vendors shout and sing to announce their goods. While La Vucciria sells clothing, shoes, and antiques, locals come for one thing and one thing only: the seafood. There’s a saying in Palermo, “Quannu s'asciucanu i balati dà Vucciria,” which means “when the streets of the Vucciria run dry.” Basically, when La Vucciria runs out of seafood, you can bet the end of days is near.
Stands are stuffed with succulent octopus, massive salmon-colored Mediterranean shrimp, squid, crabs, oysters, and mussels. Everything is caught daily and hauled to the market by the local fishermen who have lived off Palermo’s waters for generations. To keep the catch fresh, vendors spray their fish with water, sending an odiferous broth rushing constantly through La Vucciria’s streets.
After braving the market, we needed a break. Luckily, Palermo has an abundance of magnificent beaches. Mondello Beach is Palermo’s most famous. It encompasses a stretch of pristine white sand bordering the crisp, blue waters of the Mediterranean. Verdant mountains – each crowned with a halo of billowing white clouds – frame the beaches. The sand is devoid of rocks and debris; instead, it’s filled with naturally uniform grains that cushion the tired feet of Italian travellers. Vendors roam the beach, raucously announcing their goods. “Birra, corona, acqua,” one vendor shouted as he walked by. At Mondello, it’s impossible to remain invisible. The vendors heckle everyone. Whether you’re asleep on the sand or swimming in the water, they’ll follow you and shout at you until you buy something or tell them to leave. In America, we’d consider this intrusive and impolite. But here, it's just the way people make a living. No one is rude to the vendors, rather they politely say, “no grazie,” instead of hastily shooing them away. Perhaps it’s the relaxing nature of the beach or just the slow patience of southern Italy, but it’s a refreshing shift from the abrupt and busy northeast United States.
We remained on the beach for a few hours, finally receding to a local seafood restaurant when the sun had tired us out. The prices were abnormally cheap for such fresh fish: less than 15 euro a person. As we sat enjoying swordfish, mussels, and wine, dark clouds drifted in from over the mountaintops and hung suspended between the two mountains that border the beach. The rain followed, a heavy tropical downpour that turned the beach to a muddy stew before leaving as abruptly as it arrived.
The rain seemed to cleanse the beach of its guests. It washed away thousands of footprints, leaving little trace of the day’s proceedings. With these regular rains, the beach returns to its natural state – wild and untouched by mankind. In this vein, it’s much like the island. The effects of tourism are only temporary – with each passing storm Sicily returns to its natural state.
Nowhere do I see the spirit of Sicily more than in Italy’s national anthem. It declares:
We were for centuries
because we are not one people,
because we are divided.
Let one flag, one hope
gather us all.
Sicily is a testament to this stanza. It’s a melting pot of cultures, personalities and influences. There’s no single Sicily. Rather, it’s an island of the unique. It lies worlds away from industrious Milan, illustrious Florence, and eternal Rome. Instead of rejecting its division from Italy, it embraces its Sicilian identity, its varied roots and its multi-ethnic culture. Refusing to submit to Westernization, it’s a relic of a long-forgotten Italy – frozen in time, but more alive than ever.