Monday, January 10, 2011

An Italian Christmas

The Island of Sicily has been of great interest to me for a long time now. It has been under the control of so many countries and cultures and I have always heard about it's extreme beauty. This and the fact that spending Christmas in a warm place where the people actually celebrate the Christmas holiday was what led me and 4 traveling companions to decide on a trip to Sicily.

I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around the mainland of Italy, hitting the highlights; Rome, Tuscany, Florence, Venice, and Milan. However, Sicily was unlike any of those places. It has a more relaxed feeling and holds a lot of similarities with the Greek Ionian Islands. The people were all friendly, welcoming, and curious about us, our lives (particularly why we chose to live in Albania), and our trip.

The majority of our time was spent in Palermo, but we also traveled to smaller towns around Sicily, such as: Mondello, Cefalu, Monreale, and Agrigento. Each of these places is known for something completely different. Mondello, which is located 45 min Northeast of Palermo, is a small (about the size of Himare) beach town. Since we were there around Christmas there really weren't that many people there and there wasn't a lot going on in the town. It was still a nice to visit because it is an absolutely beautiful place.

Cefalu is to the west of Palermo and located, much like Himare, smack between a tall mountain and the sea. This town was also quite beautiful, but it was quite different from Mondello. This town has not been "modernized". The streets are still very narrow and made of cobblestone and most the original buildings are still used. Cefalu is also home to a beautiful cathedral and a large cistern that has been in use for hundreds of years.

Monreale is known for it's spectacular duomo. The inside of this large cathedral is completely covered in tiles. On the walls, ceiling, archways, and floors are beautiful and brightly colored mosaics. What is also interesting is that the entire Bible is depicted in mosaics, sequentially, all around the interior of the cathedral. I am not the most versed in Bible stories, but even I could tell what most mosaics were illustrating. One of my favorite things about the cathedral in Monreale was the use of the gold leafed tiles. They really enhanced the brightness of the other colored tiles as well as created a mystical ambiance.

Many of the towns, including Palermo, have architecture that was influenced by the Normans as well as the Italians. Agrigento, on the other hand, was know for it's numerous temples built by the Greeks. There are about 8 temples that were built by the Greeks in honor of various Greek gods, including Zeus and Poseidon. These temples are all located within about a 2-mile strip of land. They all look out over the sea and the town of Agrigento is behind them. The view at sunset is absolutely gorgeous!

Palermo, one of the largest cities on the Island of Sicily, is a large and cosmopolitan city that also has areas in which are more "traditionally Italian". What I mean by this is that there are parts of Palermo that have wide boulevards and modern buildings, but there are also many narrow streets, which are lined with the original buildings. We stayed in an area that is more residential and did not host many tourists. We were across the street from the sea and near the botanical gardens. It was a good and central place to base ourselves. Because where we were staying was more of a residential area, we had the pleasure of getting to know some of the locals around the neighborhood. There were two family owned restaurants around the corner from our apartment. Both of these restaurants were good, but one of the owners/chefs was particularly welcoming and the food was unbelievably fresh. We learned a lot about Sicilian culture from this restaurant owner, as well as from a few men who owned a bakery down the street. Both of these businesses were extremely friendly and taught us about the Sicilian lifestyle and how Sicilians interact with each other by simply speaking to us like old friends. We were treated more like locals rather than tourists. It was great to feel "at home" in the neighborhood where we were staying.

One of my favorite things about Palermo were the numerous open-air markets. When wandering the narrow alleys/streets of the city we were constantly coming across markets. There was fresh produce, cheese, meat, and fish available for purchase, as well as quite a selection of spices and traditional Sicilian spice mixtures for pastas. These markets opened early in the morning and didn't close until around 7 or 8 at night. Located in the same alleyways were small local bars. These bars opened later in the day, around 6 or so, and stayed open till late at night. These bars attracted a young local crowd and had exciting and relaxed atmospheres. The bars were so small that most of the drinking was done outside in the narrow alleyways and on benches that the bars would set up in the street. We met some really interesting people at these bars. I think the most comical incident at the bars was when Kim witnessed a woman get peed on by a dog. She was laughing so hard I thought she was going to spit her drink out.

The drink that most of these bars served was called sweet wine. We don't know for sure, but we think it was wine mixed with some sort of hard liquor, or that's what it tasted like. They were brewed and kept in large glass jugs. You had the option to buy a bottle or just a cup of it. When buying a bottle of the sweet wine, the bar tenders would fill up an empty liquor bottle of some sort. These bars attracted a younger, more liberal looking and acting crowd. I think these were some of our favorite nights.

In the 7 days that we were there we really only got to see part of Sicily. There is so much to see on this tiny small island. I am definitely going to have to go back and explore the southern and western parts of Sicily. It was a great place to spend the Christmas holidays and I couldn't have asked for better travel companions.

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