Still a healthy city of about 40,000 people, Caltagirone has been home to human activity since prehistoric days. The name comes from the Arabic “qal’at-al-ghiran”, or “Hill of Vases”, which serves as an indication of how tightly connected to pottery the town has always been. Caltagirone was completely destroyed in the 1693 earthquake that leveled much of eastern Sicily. But like Noto, it was rebuilt in grand style, with a heavy emphasis on Baroque architecture.
Before we moved to Sicily for 91 days, I didn’t know that there was actually a town called Corleone. I had assumed that the name was invented by Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather. So I felt a thrill upon discovering that the town actually does exist, just an hour from Palermo, and that it indeed has a past strongly identified with the Mafia. It was just a matter of time before we visited. My name is Michael, after all.
Syracuse had been under the control of the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs, but was always home to a healthy Jewish population. As in many of the European cities to which Jews emigrated following the diaspora, the ruling hierarchies were grudgingly tolerant of them and their religion. That is, until the arrival of the Spanish who decreed the total expulsion of Jews from their kingdom, in 1492.
More than anything else, Palermo is awash in historic, beautiful churches. At least once a week, Jürgen and I will swear off visits to any further churches. “It’s enough”, we’ll cry! “We’re not even religious!” But then, we’ll read about another one, like the Magione. Founded in 1191. Used for three centuries as a lodge for the Teutonic Knights. Arab-Norman architecture. Five minutes from our house. With a lovely cloister.
“A lovely cloister, you say? Let’s do it.”
Thinking about Sicilian food nearly always sets the stomach to growling. Perfectly-baked pizzas, al dente pasta smothered in a rich ragú, fried arancine, swordfish filets, cannoli, pani c’a meusa. Mmmmm… Hold on, wait just a second. That last one, I don’t recognize that. “Oh no? Well then, my friend, we must educate you. Pani c’a meusa!”
During our day trip to Sicily’s northwestern extreme, we only had a couple hours to explore Trapani. That’s not nearly enough time to do justice to this city of 70,000, but it was winter. Days are shorter, and we also had Erice to get to. So we confined ourselves to Trapani’s historic center, which begins as the city branches off from the island and becomes a narrow strip of land jutting into the sea.
Sipping on a cappuccino in the Piazza Rivoluzione, the place where the 1848 uprising against the French began, I came to the realization that despite my angry mood and annoying stress of everyday life, things could be worse.
One of the top sights in Palermo is the Norman Palace, on the western extreme of the old city center. A massive complex built in the 11th century, the palace is still used today as the seat of the Sicilian government. Tourists are allowed in, but understandably restricted to a small section.
Although it’s tucked into the maze-like alleys of the Albergheria, the Casa Professa (or the Chiesa del Gesù, as it’s more officially known) isn’t difficult to find. Just head towards that beautiful green and white tiled dome, visible over most of the neighborhood’s rooftops. One of southern Italy’s most spectacular Baroque churches awaits.
This might be common throughout Italy, but Palermo is the first time we’ve encountered a store that sells wine by the liter, as though it were gas. Pumped from a tank, through a nozzle into a large plastic container, with a ticker racking up the price, really as though it were gas. It’s even about the same price.