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Lost in Sicily

Words & Images by Clive Pursehouse

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The first thought in my head when I wake up, hung over, is that I’m too old for this. My second thought is: Was that a rooster? I’m in Palermo, Sicily, and I got here last night. Palermo is gritty. Its outskirts are vast and sprawling, and the population of the metro area soars above one million. Visually, the city seems disjointed. The gray and drab apartments are a remnant of both the destruction that occurred during World War II and the scempio or “the Sack of Palermo” that occurred afterward. The apartments dominate the city’s skyline as we turn off the highway from the airport into town. If you picture quintessential Italian towns as places that exude charm upon approach, Palermo is a shock to the system.

The Allied bombing raids of 1943 left the city in ruins and postwar Palermo saw a huge influx of migrants from the island’s war-torn, mountainous inland. Construction and restoration were vital to house the city’s new residents. Mafia-influenced building permitting and demolition looked away from restoring the city’s historic core, and opted instead to build new. Green spaces, orchards, parks and villas were lost as Palermo, once one of Europe’s finest cities, was more or less paved over. There were midnight demolitions of sites marked for preservation, sometimes only hours before those protections could be formally put in place. The expansive and unsightly high rises eventually give way to the city’s historical core. Palermo hides its charm here in this ancient quarter along the Mediterranean. It is a celebration of this capital city, and this island’s soul. Sicily is a survivor.

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My hangover got its start innocently enough. Simona, my guide, is a native Sicilian who balances charm and no-nonsense frankness. She leads me through the serpentine streets and alleys of Palermo, many paved with centuries-old stone slabs, to an osteria that specializes in the celebrated Palermitan street food. A city’s street food is the essence of a place and Palermo has one of the world’s most respected street-food scenes. The cuisine of both Palermo and Sicily is both a celebration of its bounty and a recognition of its unavoidable realities.

For Sicily, that means fresh fish and seafood in abundance, sfincione (Sicilian pizza) and plenty of arancine (fried, stuffed rice balls) and panelle (fritters), and the island staple, sardines, in a fish cake called polpette di sardi. There are also other creatures from the Mediterranean I couldn’t quite name. These standard bearers mingle alongside food inspired by Palermo’s other reality: a long history of poverty.

In many street-food cultures, it’s the working man’s and woman’s fare, and, in Palermo, offal is on the menu. Focaccina milza, which Simona translated as “spleen burgers,” is a riff on pani ca meusa, a famous Palermo sandwich made from spleen and lung meats, along with whatever might be left. These are not for the faint of heart but when complemented, as they often are, with caciocavallo, a Sicilian hard cheese, they may become a more tolerable sort of working man’s cheeseburger. We also had cartilage from I believe a cow’s jaws in a sort of salad, insalata di mussu e masciddaru, which was charmingly translated as “mouth meat.”

All the while, Simona is ordering bottles of native Sicilian wines, including Nero d’Avola (a popular red) and a sparkling wine made from grillo (a white grape variety). I’m drinking them enthusiastically because they’re outstanding and I want to be a gracious guest. The problem is that the wines are way better than the focaccina milza and the mouth meat, and by the end of the evening I haven’t eaten enough.

As we venture out into the Palermo night and experience the real street-food scene in the city’s tiny streets and alleys, we head down an alley packed with people drinking beer and chowing down along lines of food carts, tables and makeshift grills. The streets of Palermo are absolutely charged with energy and bustling. There’s more octopus, loads of panelle, pani ca meusa, sfincione and what appear to be intestine kabobs.

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I stop to pet a dog, pat someone on the back and lean over a grill and take in what is the most amazing porchetta I have ever seen. I want one of those, but when I look around for Simona she’s already up the road and so I keep moving. When we stop we’re in front of the Teatro Massimo, one of the Palermo’s architectural treasures. It is Europe’s largest opera house and third largest theatre and has played host to countless acts of Puccini, Bellini and Verdi—not to mention the final scene of “Godfather III.”

Pointing to a statue of some distinguished gentleman with an incredibly impressive mustache, I ask, “Who’s that guy?” “Come on, that’s Verdi!” someone proclaims. “Sorry. He looks like Mark Twain. Are you sure?” Tomorrow, I will wake to an epic hangover, but my first night in Palermo has been fantastic.

Sicily’s past is complicated. Sicily is the largest Italian region and the largest island in the Mediterranean. Its size and location have made it a popular acquisition for a variety of empires. The island has been ruled by many civilizations—and even, occasionally, by Sicilians. The Romans, Normans, Vandals, Moors, Byzantines and Catalans, among others, have conquered Sicily over time, some of them more than once.

This patchwork of so many different cultures has made Sicily unique, with a Sicilian attitude and outlook. It’s an autonomous region under the contemporary Italian government but for most of mankind’s memory Sicily was the object of conquest and political turbulence. Giuseppi Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo (“The Leopard”) depicts Sicily’s role along with its reluctance to play a part in Italian unification through the eyes of the late-19th century Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina. The literary masterpiece paints a candid picture of a sort of Sicilian paradox: Whoever the new bosses are, it’s likely they’ll bear striking resemblance to the old bosses where Sicily is concerned, and Sicily isn’t changing for anybody.

I finally rise late in the morning and move quickly through the hotel lobby. It’s a beautiful day in old Palermo. The fresh air does me good, and my head and my stomach settle into a fragile truce. I pass through narrow streets with red-hued buildings marked by time, and a few blocks down the Via Vittorio Emanuele my oasis awaits: an espresso stand on Piazza Marina.

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Two espressos and a massive cannoli later, I’m in recovery. I stroll along the harbor of Palermo where the blue sky mirrors the Mediterranean. It’s gorgeous here: yachts and sailboats bobbing at their moorings, mountains looming over this sprawling city on Sicily’s northern coast. I’ve never been to the French Riviera, but this is tough to beat. Those ugly high-rise complexes seem a world away. I hustle back to the hotel to meet Simona because we’re due in Agrigento on Sicily’s south coast in the evening. Both places figure in cycling lore. The historic 1949 Giro d’Italia, in which the dramatic duel between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi was immortalized by novelist Dino Buzzati, started in Palermo. The city also staged the 1994 world track championships, where Pennsylvania’s Marty Nothstein won two gold medals, while that year’s road worlds took place on a hilly circuit in Agrigento.

Inland Sicily is mountainous, a stark, dry desert in some places and, in others, lush and green. In all iterations, it’s beautiful. The Ancient Greeks’ name for Agrigento was Akragas. Though today the town isn’t much to look at, in the 6th century B.C. it was a major player in Magna Graecia (or “Greater Greece”) in that civilization’s golden age when there were strong Greek settlements in Sicily, most notably the city of Siracusa. The population of Akragas swelled to near 200,000 but today Agrigento is a city of fewer than 60,000 people, and shrinking under a stagnant and antiquated economy.

The region was long a source of sulfur, and its mining industry was a boon to the Sicilian economy, especially when it was the world’s largest and only sulfur supplier. The industry is long gone, and along with it went both its negative environmental impacts and its employment. It’s a part of Sicily’s past that the island would rather forget because it came along with an incredibly ugly underside that included unthinkable child-labor abuses.

Folks come to Agrigento these days for the Valley of the Temples Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Looking out to sea, a line of Doric Greek temples paints a picture of what was once a flourishing city. There are two more intact temples of Juno and Concordia, along with massive ruins of temples to Hercules, Zeus and Castor and Pollux. Eight temples, all in various states of ruin, have been subject to earthquakes and used as stone quarries for later construction. Their size and grandeur is a reminder of the brilliance and ingenuity of the Ancient Greeks. The best preserved, the Temple of Concordia, looks almost as it must have done 25 centuries ago. It was converted to a Christian basilica in 597 A.D. and spared a fate as a stone quarry. Much of Akragas hasn’t been excavated because modern Agrigento was simply built over the top of it, and so we’re left to wonder at how much more of the original city is intact, an unseen buried treasure.

The Greeks established their city along the banks of the Hypsas and Akragas rivers because the land flowed with milk and honey. Here they planted orchards, gardens and vineyards. The Garden of Kolymbetra, a modern-day Eden, bursts with an assortment of fruit; prickly pear, orange and lemon orchards are flanked by olive groves and almond and pistachio trees. Just outside the park’s boundaries are the roots of a project that seeks to give us a contemporary glimpse of this ancient oasis.

Abutting the larger park, in the shadow of the Temple of Juno, lies a seven-and-a-half-acre plot of 40-year-old vines, planted to indigenous varieties. The vineyard site was selected and planted in the 1970s based on archeological evidence that pointed to an intensity of wine production here. There were traces of amphora, the vessels used by the Greeks to carry and store wine, as well as ruins of wine production facilities, known as pigiatóio, crumbling edifices once used to press grapes and produce wine. For most of the replanted vineyard’s existence, the park has sold off the grapes, indigenous varieties such as Nero d’Avola, Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese, to be made into wine by other producers.

As a celebration of both history and heritage, the park has partnered with CVA (Consorzio Viticultori Associati) Canicattì, a commercial wine cooperative with 480 members growing wine in and around the Agrigento region. The co-op itself has gone from bulk-wine production to a focus on producing fine wines in the last decade or so, and its mission is both a celebration of this region’s history as well as its potential.

The resulting collaboration is the Diodoros Project, named for the 1st-century B.C. Greek historian, Diodoros Siculus, who was born in nearby Agira. The wine (as well as an olive oil) is a venture in preservation as well as a way to make a case for the region and the island’s history and future. Sicilian wine has long been heralded for its affordability and approachability. Nero d’Avola is arguably Sicily’s most noble of grapes and its fine tannins and ripe fruit character make it a worthy wine to serve as a flagship for this ancient vineyard, and the Diodoros Project seeks to elevate the native wine grapes, grown here more than 2,000 years ago, as an illustration for Sicily’s enological achievements and potential.

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Sicily’s story is compelling and ancient, the stuff of myth. It was near here that Hades captured Persephone; and where Cyclops hurled his rocks in an attempt to crush a fleeing Odysseus. The island is rustic and roughhewn but simultaneously beautiful and awe inspiring. Today’s Sicilians rightfully celebrate their island’s heart in the crowded food stalls of old Palermo and at an ancient vineyard in Agrigento.

Today’s Sicily might still be trying to find her voice, but Sicily has been taken for granted for too long. It’s a beautiful island that’s too long been used as a resource instead of celebrated as a treasure. These days, Sicilians like Simona are beginning to embrace and celebrate a concept that for centuries was not their reality: this land is their land. “For so long, we were accustomed to being ruled, not being the owners of our own land,” she tells me. “That, at the moment, that we finally could, I’m not sure we knew how. We’re starting now to figure out that we have to save this land, to protect it. That this is our land, our home. We are proud of this island, and we always have been, it is a paradise. But we must seek to build a sense of responsibility to it, and each other, as Sicilians.”

For more on the Diodoros Project: cva.canicatti.it