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Sicily: Where What’s Not The Itinerary is as important as What is

Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block picnicking in Sicily.

Fyllis Hockman and Victor Block picnicking in Sicily.

By Fyllis Hockman

It happens all the time with Overseas Adventure Travel. I start out expecting to write about the trip itself — in this case Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions — and I end up writing about all the things that are not on the itinerary — what OAT refers to as Learning and Discovery.

Sure, I wanted to focus on the extensive ruins of the Greeks and Romans from the 8th century B.C.; the city market initiated by the Arabs in 900 A.D., which still operates today almost 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”; and a boat ride to a Phoenician island dating back 2700 years. And that barely brushes the surface of the extensive itinerary that brought new adventures to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story veered into trouble.

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, the “Learning and Discovery” moments that reflect the culture and deepen the immersive experience already embodied within the OAT itinerary.

While exploring the capital city of Palermo, we stopped at a tiny, nondescript storefront with antique-looking sewing machines and irons. OK, the owner is a tailor, but then to explain all the old instruments strewn everywhere? Well, the tailor is also a musician. He sang along as he played a 50-year-old mandolin. Come for the mending; stay for the repertory.

The tailor, who is also a musician played a 50-year-old mandolin.

An Abundance of Flavors

As soon as we arrived in Castelbuono, a 14th-century medieval village with a history dating back to the Arab influence of the 800s, 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 often “Learning and Discovery” has to do with food — especially in Sicily which is known for the pleasures of the palate.

Because the OAT philosophy is to not shy away from controversial topics, a discussion of the Mafia, certainly another facet of Sicily’s reputation, was not unexpected. But meeting with Angelo Provenzano, whose father, active from 1993 to 2006, was one of the most notorious Mafia bosses in Sicilian history, was a surprise. Kept in hiding for the first 16 years of his life, the son 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 his 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 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. A name everyone in the room knew well.

Dancing Satyr

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

Picnic lunches are not unusual on tours, but when they take place on an island settled by Phoenicians some 2700 years ago and your picnic table is a stone from one of their former structures, the picnic takes on greater significance.

By the end of the trip, after visiting sites representing Roman, Greek, Norman, Arabic, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Byzantine and Spanish occupation — and I’m sure I’ve left some out — we arrived in Syracusa, an ancient city that boasted remnants of all of them. There were ruins from everyone everywhere. And during the boat ride around the island of Ortigia, we sampled some Sicilian almond liqueur to get us through the 40-minute excursion. And why not? Just another “Learning and Discovery” surprise. Who said alcohol can’t be part of a cultural experience?

Taking The Curves in Style

Admittedly, exploring the old medieval city of Modica was fascinating, but it couldn’t compare with the unexpected joy rides in vintage iconic Fiat 500 sports cars over hilly, twisty, curvy, windy, narrow, cobblestone streets. First made popular in 1957 as a readily affordable automobile, these refurbished convertibles — smaller than a Smart car — just barely fit on alleyways that were unfathomably two-way. Warning: “Do not put your hand outside the car or you’ll end up losing it.” Sort of like a Disney ride threatening to go off the tracks. The fact that we were driving through a former 12th century Norman city was just a bonus.

Another itinerary highlight worth mentioning is the Landing Museum, a moving testament to the end of Italy’s involvement in World War II. I tend to forget that Italy, a Fascist nation, fought on the side of Germany; we invaded in 1943, effectively ending Mussolini’s rule. Upon entering a replica of a street in Catania in the 1940s, we suddenly heard an air raid siren — and were quickly ushered into the bomb shelter before the door closed. That was all the time we had if we wanted to live. What then ensued for a minute and a half, planes shrieking, bombs dropping, dogs barking, hysterical cries of anxious people, had gone on for hours in real life. The shelter shook and as much as I knew this was only a simulation, I could still feel the terror of those who had to endure such trauma day after day for years. We emerged to find ourselves surrounded by rubble. The rest of the museum accurately relates the people and events who suffered through this sad part of Italy and Sicily’s history. And indeed it was nice to hear how welcome the Allied forces were once they arrived.

Landing Museum

Because OAT thrives on controversy, we met with members of an organization that aids young immigrant girls who illegally land in Sicily, where a sign on the port declares “Welcome Refugees.” Oh how much we could learn from this small island, I thought. It was harrowing to listen to 19-year-old Joyce’s story of being lured from her home and family in Nigeria with promises of an education in Europe only to find herself part of an agonizing nine-month ordeal spent in many refugee camps in Libya and Syria along the way under abusive, horrendous conditions as a part of a sex-and-drug trafficking operation. She was fortunately saved by the Casa di Maria organization upon her arrival in Sicily; most are not. No one exited that room without feeling emotionally drained. Again.

And then there’s Mt. Etna, at over 10,000 feet, the largest active volcano in Europe. Although the last eruption was in May 2017, we were repeatedly assured we were in no danger of a repeat. I’m a hiker. I’m used to climbing over rocks and roots. But this was my first experience with lava stones and fields, a topography I had never seen before.

New Growth among the Old

Hiking up Mt.Etna

As we climbed the almost two miles, we passed vegetation from tiny tufts of green still recovering from earlier eruptions to huge, long-standing pine trees of old. This was so surreal, other-worldly, so without comparison to anything I’ve seen before that I feel inadequate to capture it in mere words. A stop afterwards for a shot of Etna Fire — a 70-proof concoction — shook me out of my volcanic revelry. Notice a beverage trend here?

After our farewell dinner, it was hard to believe there would be another “Learning and Discovery” moment. After all, it was late and we all had early planes the next day. But indeed we headed into town to a small, stand-alone outdoor shack where the vendor, more a bartender or even a mixologist, created of drinkable art. Tamarind syrup, fresh squeezed lemon, soda water and then the pièce de résistance … baking soda. No alcohol. All shaken up with gusto. The whole point? To make you burp. A lot. A Sicilian tradition. A very successful Sicilian tradition. Who wouldn’t want to go on such a tour?

For more information, visit 2018 Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions.

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