Italian Language Blog

Memorie Siciliane Posted by on Jan 17, 2009 in Culture

Recently I received a comment from a reader whose family is originally from Monreale in Sicilia (Sicily). These two names, Monreale and Sicilia, immediately brought back a stream of memories from a holiday I enjoyed many years ago in this beautiful region. My adventure started in Rome where I caught a night train to Palermo. Making my way to my reserved seat I found myself sharing a compartment with a young Sicilian lady, who was studying at a university on the Continente (as the Sicilians call the Italian mainland). We began chatting and during our conversation the Siciliana (Sicilian lady) informed me that it’s traditional to eat an arancino siciliano (a fried ball of rice resembling an orange) on the ferry during the crossing of the Stretto di Messina which divides Sicilia from the mainland. So it was that at 2 o’clock the following morning, with the train neatly ensconced in the massive belly of the ferry, I was awoken by my travelling companion to drag myself up onto the ponte del traghetto (deck of the ferry) in order to savour my first arancino. I must say that, as much as I hate getting up in the middle of the night, it was well worth it: the arancino was delicious and the view across the Stretto di Messina on that clear starlit night with the shimmering lights of Reggio Calabria on one side and those of Messina on the other was magical. At 8 o’clock in the morning we arrived in Palermo where a friend was waiting for me, and my discovery of this fantastic region began.

I come from Tuscany, a region in the center of Italy that for centuries remained relatively insular and free from foreign invasions, thus developing its own homogenous culture (language, art, architecture, etc.) in a ‘linear’ way without strong external influences. Sicilia, being an incredible melting pot of cultures was for me a completely new experience. Influxes of foreigners have followed one upon the other over the centuries, beginning with the Phoenicians (who founded Palermo in the 8th century B.C.) and followed by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the German kingdom of Svevia, and the Spanish, until its eventual unification with Italy in 1860. Travelling through Palermo and its surrounding was like a voyage through a tapestry of time and cultures: the Christian church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti crowned with red Arabic domes, the Greek temples and theaters of Agrigento and Selinunte, the beautiful Byzantine mosaics of the Cappella Palatina, the rich baroque adorning many buildings and churches such as the incredible Chiesa del Gesu’, and the majestic Norman cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu’. Many years later I was very surprised to find, in the Norman architecture of Southwell Minster in England, the same big round arches over the main doors, the same square towers, the same decorative overlapping motifs, all things that I had first seen in the hot Mediterranean ambience of Sicilia. The word Normanni (Normans), incidentally, means uomini del nord (Men from the North).

This mixture of cultures is still very much alive today: walking through the mercato della Vucceria in Palermo is like walking through an Arabic souk, while in the south of Sicilia you can eat the traditional North African dish of couscous. Albanian traditions and costumes are still preserved in Piana degli Albanesi, a small town 24 km south of Palermo founded in 1488 by Albanian immigrants. My friend took me there one day to taste the best cannolo siciliano, a delicious sweet made from a tube of crisp pastry filled with ricotta, candied peels and chocolate chips.

I also treasure some funny moments from this holiday such as the evening we went to watch a play performed live at the Greek archaeological site of Selinunte: it was a Japanese play performed in the original Japanese! Nevertheless, sitting on the ancient Greek stone steps under a clear sky at sunset looking down towards the verdant valley and the sea beyond was  quite a spectacular show in itself, even if a bit hard on the posterior after a while. Another amusing memory belongs to the day we were visiting the Cattedrale di Palermo: a little old man approached us and started telling the story of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo whose remains are preserved in a massive silver urn. In the middle of his monologue the old man suddenly exclaimed: “If you give me 1000 lira I’ll tell you the weight of the silver urn”. Of course we just had to know, so we gave him the money and he told us the enormous figure that, unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember.

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  1. Gianni D’Amico:

    Grazie Serena for a wonderful retrospective on Sicilia, land of my now gone parents and our ancestors. I feel the need to return for a more indepth visit to la isla after reading your charming and enlightening journey.
    Once again, grazie!



    Florida, USA

  2. Mariacarla Epifani:

    Oh, how I love the Italian Blog. My parents also from Lucca, taught me to love Italy. Every time I travel there, I feel as if I had just returned home.
    Thanks to all who contribute to this blog…keep up the wonderful work. I absolutely love it!!!


  3. ben:

    what about wearing… calosce o galosce (Zingarelli) …when it rains?

  4. Jackie:

    I traveled to Sicily last year with a group of friends. I e-mailed Memorie Siliciane to each one of them. It helped us relive a wonderful experience. I can’t wait to return. Thanks for the wonderful memories.

  5. William Auge:

    Salve Serena, ho letto dei tuoi blogs passati sto cercando per mancato lesione. Il suo articola sulla Sicilia mi ha fatto sorridere, per ho pensato della mia avventura alla Sicilia un pochi anni fa. Con permesso dalla mia moglie ho viaggiato in Sicilia da solo. Sono rimasto a Catania per 5 giorni e ho solo esplorato la costa est della isola. Siracusa, Taormini, Mt. Etna. Ho potuto vedere le molte culture della Sicilia non solo nella architettura e cibo, ma anche nei caratteristichi fisichi dei popolo.
    Il mio primo giorno a Catania ho conoscuito una donna anziana in una piazza stava godendo del gelato. Lei mi ha detto non fidersi nessuno nella Sicilia. Benche’ che potrebbe essere un buon consiglio, ma ho scoprio quale essere falso. Ho fondato Siciliani essere gentile e calda come il sole di sicilia in primavera.
    Anche, posso cambrare arranchini a chicago e cannoli sono populare in ristoranti italiani. Naturlmente, non sono buone come quelle hanno fatto in Sicilia.
    Saluti da William

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