Travels in Sicily-Cefalù & Palermo

October 5-Cefalù

The beautiful Tyrrhenian Sea, aquamarine, jouncing and frothing, far out onto the horizon, with small columns of clouds that form over warms waters. Crowds on the beach, multitudes in the streets, we are squeezing our way to our B&B. Some tour groups come toward us, clogging the way, “like sheep” says Larry, and like outside Modica, we wait until they pass. It’s Provincetown,Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz all at once, with Italian flare. B&B Lirma is run by Rosamaria and her husband, in a converted modern villa on what is probably the busiest corner near the beach, blessedly, our room is garden side, quiet and cool.

We passeggiata up to Piazza Garibaldi and down the Corso Ruggero and onto Piazza Duomo, where there is lots of gelato and aperitif consumption, everyone enjoying the cooler evening. Up the steps to the cathedral, where a mass is being held. Women are speaking at the podium (not altar), and singing! Great surges of song accompany the magnificence of the cathedral: soaring columns, the impelling mosaic image of Jesus Pantocrator in the apse. The cathedral is a synthesis of Norman, Arabic, and Byzantine aesthetics, and as such is emblematic of Sicilian history. 

I am not a believer, but the power of the place in use is still very moving. I’m sure those taking videos will have the same experience when they get home.

For dinner, we settle on one of our hostess’s recommendations, Il Triscete, starting off with slow cooked (7hours!)  octopus on panette, little fried chick pea squares, and a lemon sauce, followed by cod with a lovely tomato sauce, served on just the right amount of mashed potatoes. Dessert? Yes, we’ll have the chocolate thingy with mandarin sauce. Down to the water again for a stroll home, to bed.

Breakfast at the B&B groaning board. Rosamaria’s mother, a retired math and science teacher, bakes the cakes and egg dishes: today it’s a mushroom quiche, and a few other delights, along  with cheeses, salumni, fruit, bread, butter, jam, etc. Restraining myself, I enjoy the quiche, pistachio salami, yogurt, cappuccino, and melon.

Our goal is to climb as high as we want up La Rocca, the dominant geographic feature of Cefalù, 900 ft rising straight out of the sea.

As you can see, it makes a great lookout spot if you are concerned about the next wave of invaders, and one medieval community lived safely up here while under siege: ovens, a church, stone walls, a deep cistern.

A trek like that deserves a good plate of pasta, which we split while watching a family at Sunday lunch: the adults and baby at one table, four other children eating silently at another, along with a phone or two. It’s a virus.

A rest, a gelato, a walk around town, the hunt for pizza bringing us back to the same restaurant, this time outside, perfect for people watching.

Tuesday, October 8

Yesterday, off to Castel de Tusa, home of the Fundazione Fiumara del’arte. Initiated by an art lover and industrialist, Antonio Presti, the foundation has brought artists together to collaborate on large and smaller events and installations. The latter are scattered along a dry riverbed, and in the surrounding hillsides.

 We saw three, the last two requiring an ascent of 2100 feet , very twisty going up and more so coming down. The skies had been threatening all day; as were were returning along SS113, curving but flat, it began to rain moderately, all the way back to town. We arrived in the car at Lirma, and so did the diluvio, rushing water down the streets, spilling over  sidewalks, trapping people under overhangs, drenching me as I tried unsuccessfully to open the gate to the parking. Our angel hostess came down and moved her car for us.

We spent the evening indoors, until the rain relented. Only then could we rescue the laundry we  had left outside earlier, setting up improvised drying arrangements.

Out for a delicious mushroom pizza, which we enjoyed while watching the pizza maker; Larry calculated that it took probably ninety seconds for him to make a pizza. After making five or so, he would load each one on his long-handled paddle, and swing it gracefully into the wood-fired oven. His rhythm was beautiful to watch: steady, never rushed.

Before leaving today, a quick jaunt to see the mosaics up close, or least a little closer. The were made by Byzantine artists in the 12th century C.E., when the Normans had conquered this part of Sicily, and had employed the artistry of the Byzantine and Muslim residents.

Travels in Sicily-Palermo

To Palermo, along the coast. Mountains cultivated to impossible heights drop to the coast, a thin line of plain densely cultivated with lemons, olives, braccia and other crops, and lots of concrete houses (summer homes, or the expectations of great tourism waves). Took a detour around a rocky peninsula, and ate a yummy lunch of lentils and spaghetti, and fried squid in Aspra.

Here’s our little pad in Palermo, in the “New City” (19th cent.), on a wide, tree-lined street, toney:

We’re off to the opera at Teatro Massimo, to see “Winter’s Journey”; more later, or read about it in the NYT from last week. ( )

Wednesday, October 9th

The visuals were great, the music driven, reminding me of Philip Glass, the story, of an African refugee in Europe and the family he had to leave behind, and the hostility in Europe, sad and not hopeful. 

The best part was meeting a group of people, some from Senegal, friends of the singer protagonist Bandara Seck, who run an African restaurant and cultural center, where we will go tonight.

Wednesday, October 11

We went on a walking tour with a great guide, Domenico Aronica, whose knowledge of the city and sights was prolific, and delivered with a wonderful sense of humor. 

La  Martorana, beautiful church in the Norman Arabic style: a Norman church tower you might find in England or France, Islamic mosaics on the outside and on the floors inside, 12th century Byzantine mosaics, and later baroque marble mosaics and frescoes. 

Palermo was heavily bombed by the allies (yes, your parents’ tax dollars at work), leading to the Sicilian capitulation and decision to fight on the Allied side. By some miracle, or precise bomb dropping, these churches survived. In the middle of town, however, you can still see the destruction wrought by these attacks, seventy-six years ago.

Domenico took us to several workshops:

Blacksmiths, making chestnut roasters and commercial kitchen counters, chair caner, a tailor who played Sicilian mandolin for us, and a puppet maker, whose family had been in the trade since 1860. The puppet shows repeat the theme of the French soldiers defeating the Arabian pirates: not hard to plug religion in there.

We stopped for arancino snacks, rice balls (baseball) stuffed with cheese, ham, or spinach and fried to give a lovely crust. Later orange or pomegranate juice, as we trolled the market: fish, squid, fruit, four-foot long zucchini, herbs, nuts, socks, phone covers, this, that, and the other.

We fortified ourselves with espresso and a shared canolo, then hauled back to the pad for a rest until around five, when we hit the streets again, aiming for the Museum of the Inquisition, through back streets, wandering through some neighborhoods not on the tourist circuit. A streetside bookstore., a float of the patron saint, Santa Rosario:

At Garabaldi Park were these two huge multi trunk ficus trees. Palermo has a similar climate to California, and not that much rain in the summer, but the city is built over two rivers, which allows these trees to grow so large.

The museum was closing up by the time we arrived, no problem, we continued our walk, onto an open space, with a small playing field upon which an energetic game of soccer was being hashed out, while bystanders argued. Beyond the field was an abandoned building and a razed area. Posh restaurants dotted the periphery. Palermo, the ruins and the renovations side by side.

It was time to find our friends at Ciwara, their restaurant in the Vucciria market, in the Piazza Cariccoli. This place is a stew of people, ordering fish, beef, stuffed beef intestines (?), to be cooked to order; beer, wine, and regular restaurant fare.

We ordered two dishes from Senegal: a peanut butter beef dish, and a chicken and vegetable dish, both pleasantly spicy. I had a ginger lemon drink with black pepper (tasty). On the way home we caught this post office from the Fascist Era, the bright lights of a leftover religious event.