Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places That Speak to the Heart

Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places That Speak to the Heart

by John Keahey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250104694
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/13/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 518,158
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

John Keahey is a retired newspaper reporter/news editor, and "writer who travels." He first visited Sicily in 1986 and, enchanted, keeps returning in between writing other travel narratives. His books range from southern Italy to Venice to western Tuscany. He is married to Connie Disney, a freelance book designer.

P. J. Ochlan, an Audie Award-winning and multiple AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator, has recorded hundreds of audiobooks. His acting career spans more than thirty years and has also included Broadway, the New York Shakespeare Festival, critically acclaimed feature films, and regular roles in television series.

Read an Excerpt


Street of the Pagan

Throughout the history of the human race no land and no people have suffered so terribly from slavery, from foreign conquests and oppressions, and none have struggled so irrepressibly for emancipation as Sicily and the Sicilians. Almost from the time when Polyphemus promenaded around Etna, or when [Demeter] taught the Siculi the culture of grain, to our day, Sicily has been the theater of uninterrupted invasions and wars, and of unflinching resistance. The Sicilians are a mixture of almost all southern and northern races; first, of the aboriginal Sicanians, with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and slaves from all regions under heaven, imported into the island by traffic or war; and then of Arabs, Normans, and Italians. The Sicilians, in all these transformations and modifications, have battled, and still battle, for their freedom.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Collected Works, Vol. 17

MY FIRST, and what I thought would be one of my most important vows — stay on blue highways; avoid the autostrada — was about to be broken. The clock was quickly moving forward; by noon, after leaving Palermo around 9:00 A.M. on SS113, I was only as far east along the Tyrrhenian coast as Cefalù.

Traffic through the small coastal towns was heavy. Cars and produce trucks were parked haphazardly along the narrow streets, as is typical in such places in Italy's far south. Vehicles from opposite directions would squeeze past each other, often with side mirrors pulled in to allow an extra inch or two of clearance. Or, a car in front would simply stop while the driver conversed with a friend on a sidewalk. I learned long ago to act like a Sicilian while driving in such an environment: There is no sense in honking; the conversation will eventually end, and the driver will move on. Sicilian friends over the years, when I expressed frustration over a bureaucratic snafu or getting hung up in impossible traffic, often would advise me, "Tranquillo, John. Tranquillo!" You will get there eventually. No reason to get agitated.

At this pace, my plan to reach Castiglione di Sicilia on the south slope of the Peloritani Mountains by midafternoon would fail. It would take until long after dark to navigate the final stretch into a town I had never before visited and that looked on my iPhone map to be made up of a maze of narrow, meandering, one-way streets.

So, with a shake of my head, I broke away from the coastal highway, which winds delightfully through villages and olive groves, and entered the sterile north–south Palermo–Messina autostrada with its miles of dark tunnels and high speeds. It was a wise decision. Those miles flashed by. Within thirty minutes, I was at Capo d'Orlando and the autostrada's connection to SS116, where I could leisurely begin the climb over the western edge of the Peloritani Mountains in Sicily's far northeast. I could wind my way over the top and down to the base of the north slope of Europe's largest active volcano, Etna, and into Castiglione. This tiny village would be my home for nearly two weeks as I visited it and a handful of mountain villages in the first phase of my search for the essence of Sicily's small towns.

I have traversed Sicily and portions of the Italian peninsula many times over the years, nearly always by automobile and, unless absolutely pressed for time, which is almost never, I studiously avoid the autostrada. Paying occasional tolls is not the issue; as on American interstates, it is the fast highway's avoidance of small places that bothers me. You see a hilltop village in the distance and long to explore it, but you are past the exit before you know it, or there is no specific exit.

By following state, provincial, and local roads, you are forced to slow down. And discover. Such small, narrower roads go everywhere, giving the traveler a chance to stop, enjoy a caffè in a local bar, or eat lunch or dinner in a family-run trattoria with perhaps only a half-dozen tables. The autostrada offers only garishly lighted truck stops and commercial cafeterias.

On this day, in early March with windy gusts and occasional rain splatters, SS116 carried me up, up, up on a road that sometimes felt like I was driving around the rings of a corkscrew. Despite being a state road, the equivalent of a federal highway in the United States, it is, like most roads in Sicily, often just wide enough for cars to pass in opposite directions, and ill maintained. Occasionally, warning markers show that a part of the roadway is slipping off a steep embankment, or there may be short stretches of gravel-only road surface. Many curves are nearly blind, requiring use of the car's horn to alert opposing drivers. This always takes me some getting used to, but within a day or so I tend to begin driving like a Sicilian, downshifting, then upshifting at will through the curves, laying on the horn as a warning to anyone approaching. On the portions where only one vehicle can go at a time, it becomes second nature to guess when the car coming at you will pause so you can go by, or when you should do the pausing.

High near a summit of the first line of Peloritani Mountains, I stopped just past the village of Naso. The observation point overlooked, far below, the tiny enclave of Ficarra, and far beyond to the north, the Tyrrhenian Sea and a cluster of three of the seven Aeolian Islands: Salina, Lipari, and Vulcano. It was a pleasing view, the cover of high clouds diffusing the light so each island stood out in soft, dark relief against what the Greek storyteller Homer, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, called a "wine dark sea."

This highway passes through the Parco Regionale dei Nebrodi, now protected, ostensibly, from overdevelopment. Once this land, like the neighboring Madonie Mountains farther to the west, was carpeted with vast swaths of pine and hardwood forest. Over the centuries, unthinking deforestation to feed the gigantic maw of shipbuilding required by Mediterranean empires that long raped, pillaged, and looted Sicily for their own gain cleared off these mountains with no thought given to replanting. And Sicily, centuries ago, offered a much cooler climate than it experiences today, so these forests stand little chance of reestablishing.

The first three months of 2016 were cold and wet, then gradually warming, and the mountains occasionally were covered with snow at their high points, but Sicily's reality is that such winters are the exception. And summers are blazingly hot, giving special meaning to the expressions "burned-over land" and the "Africanization" of Sicily. The Sicilian fir, native to these mountains, is virtually gone. One source says, incredibly, that only twenty-one mature trees of that particular species remain. Replanting fails because of continued heavy livestock grazing and gradual climate shifts to hotter and drier.

* * *

Over the top of the last southward ridge, SS116 dropped down into a great plain along the bottom edge of Mount Etna's north slope. As I curled my way down through the Peloritani foothills, I passed flocks of sheep and herds of cattle grazing on slopes that were likely terraced to sustain crops hundreds, if not a thousand or more years ago. Many of those terrazze today are overgrown and unplanted, occasionally punctuated by crumbling stone houses and huts. It was obvious that many of the farms have long been abandoned, with families leaving for the Americas or Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Still others left after competing World War II armies swept through with the destruction such events bring. Many never came back to reclaim the property or the second homes in town. Their descendants, being fully raised Americans or Australians, may have had no interest in or even no knowledge of their ancestors' abandoned property. And so the land and decaying structures sit while the population of these places declines. If they are taken over with an eye toward reoccupying them, either by later generations or strangers, restoration seems preferable, maintaining the character of medieval neighborhoods. Few have the American penchant for tearing down something so old and building a modern structure. There are some restored homes that look ancient on the outside, but whose interiors are completely modern.

The only evidence of crops was in small, private gardens that produce enough vegetables for an extended family or, perhaps, for occasional sale in a village's weekly market. Cows, sheep, and goats prowl these overgrown swaths of green generated by winter snows and rain — land that will turn brown and dry by July and August and is prone to frequent wildfires.

I parked on a high turnout overlooking the town of Randazzo, a junction point in my drive to Castiglione, and watched a sheepherder and his dogs push his flock up a steep hill, along a slight terrazza leading to a pasture, already green in early spring. The flock disappeared over the crest of a bump in the land caused millennia ago by a now-dormant vent to the gases rumbling deep within Etna.

Randazzo is a medieval town, heavily modernized after World War II, but still with its requisite medieval churches and a handful of ancient buildings that survived the war or that have been restored. It has been a major crossing point for vast armies over the centuries. It was through here that the Spanish king, Peter of Aragon, after landing far to the west at Trapani, marched with his army in late summer 1282 en route to Messina on the northeast coast. He had offered to help rebellious Sicilians depose the French during an event that became known as the Sicilian Vespers in exchange for him becoming king of Sicily. And nearby, in 1719, at the village of Francavilla, the ruling Spanish fought and lost to the Austrians in one of the biggest battles on the island since Roman-Carthaginian times. It was during what historians call the War of the Quadruple Alliance. Messina then fell, and the Austrians besieged Palermo. The Austrians' victory was short-lived. Just fourteen years later, the Spanish returned, taking Naples in 1734, and Sicily the following year. Francavilla, which grew up around a late-eleventh-century abbey, had "di Sicilia" added onto its name in 1863 to distinguish it from seven other Francavillas found throughout Italy.

Randazzo is one of the major population centers in the area closest to Etna's main crater, but lava flows over the centuries have graciously spared it. Several years ago, I drove along the town's edge en route elsewhere and, while the town didn't appeal to me, the area around it did. It was early July during that long-ago trip, and vast stretches of well-irrigated vineyards shimmered in all directions with intense skies free of clouds. Etna wine is produced here and elsewhere along Etna's vast flank, and the countryside hangs heavy with well-ordered vines.

Various roads cut through younger swaths of lava rock in stages of turning into that productive volcanic soil. Hundreds of years from now, new fields will grow out of the soil produced from the black rock disgorged as lava from deep within Sicily's northeastern edge a few thousand years ago. Small plants and bushes already are taking hold in these old lava fields, including the hearty ginestra, known in English as "broom," and its powerful roots that nature uses to inexorably break the lava apart. Meanwhile, lava stone is used for rock walls dividing land and bordering roadways, and, since ancient times, in buildings, temples, and churches.

* * *

Thanks to the respite I got by jumping onto the autostrada, I still had plenty of daylight left to help me find my way into Castiglione di Sicilia, known by the Sicilian name Castigghiuni before Sicily was unified with mainland Italy in 1860. Rome, the new conqueror, like it did with Francavilla, added the "di Sicilia" so the Sicilian version would not be confused with the handful of other Castigliones on the peninsula.

Just moments after I left Randazzo and sooner than I expected it, the turnoff popped up around a blind curve ahead. I made a sharp left and just ahead, high on a hill and scrunched into a saddle with what appeared to be the remains of a castle at one lofty end, clusters of mostly pale yellow buildings emerged in this village called Castiglione. Packed helter-skelter across the face of the mountain saddle, these structures showed themselves off in the increasing peachlike glow of midafternoon light.

For a few miles, the road passed vineyards closed off behind strong fences and large iron gates, through patches of freshly pruned olive trees, and, occasionally, those untouched fields of ancient lava flows. Within a few moments, the asphalt gradually, then suddenly, steepened as I moved off the valley floor, carved eons ago through ancient lava by the Alcantara River. The state highway made its way up into the town, tapering down to one very steep lane within a few hundred feet. I pressed along, hoping a car would not meet me wanting to come down. I got lucky, and the street crested a hill and lowered down into a tiny town square with a series of other streets shooting off in confusing directions. Some were one-way, others two-way, but all were narrow and lined with parked cars that shriveled down the driving space even more.

I could see I would have an adventure finding my bed-and-breakfast, Borgo Santa Caterina, which had the strange additional name of albergo diffuso. I pulled alongside a cluster of elderly men standing, as they usually do in small Italian and Sicilian towns, in front of a bar. Glancing inside, I could see tables of men, middle-aged and elderly, playing cards.

"Buonasera. Dovè la Borgo Santa Caterina?" Then I added on the phrase that I picked up from the B and B site: "C'e 'albergo diffuso.'" I had no idea what that term meant, but the men immediately knew. "Ahh, Valentino!" one said, giving the hotel owner's name on my confirming email. "Sì," I said, thrilled to know they knew him and the hotel. One man then rattled off a series of directions in what sounded more like Sicilian than Italian, but I got the drift. Go down this street, turn left, turn left again, and go up the street. ... There I lost the drift, but I figured I would take it a step at a time. Years of traveling by car in Italy and Sicily gave me a willingness to be bold.

Waving and shouting my gratitude, I took off. Within a few moments I was back, driving past the same group of men. I had simply made a circle rather than going down another road. I waved, they smiled and nodded, but I didn't stop. I tried it again, this time opting for a lower road at a small junction. There, near the edge of the village center, was a hotel sign with an arrow pointing right. I turned and drove about 150 feet. The road quickly squeezed down to almost less than a single lane, but ahead was the brightly painted front door. I pushed a button in the car that automatically brought the side mirrors in — the street was that narrow — and stopped at the door, where the driveway opened up enough to allow me to climb out.

Inside, the clerk Rosario greeted me in English. He filed my passport information and went out with me to retrieve my luggage. Hauling it up to my room was when I learned what albergo diffuso meant. Three short stair flights (I hate to use the word "narrow" again, but they were) later, with landings leading off in different directions to different buildings, finally got me to where I would sleep for the next eleven days.

This was not a traditional hotel with all the rooms under one roof. And there certainly was no elevator. The buildings, while separate, were in a cluster. "Twisting and narrow," for steps leading up hills to local streets, is commonplace in these Sicilian hill towns first built in the early Middle Ages or laid out even centuries before, sometimes by Greeks, other times by Romans, Arabs, or Normans. After all, how wide did a road back then need to be for a carriage, or a donkey-driven cart when buildings could be built right up to the road's edge? Tearing down medieval buildings to make roads wider is virtually unheard of there, except perhaps on occasion in large cities.

Then I had to move my car. "Parking is back there," Rosario said, pointing to the wider part of the street. He saw my consternation. I came in okay, but backing up would be much harder. I am not good at it. "I will do it for you," he said with a hopeful smile. "I do this all the time." No, I said confidently. Then, in strong Italian, "Proverò (I will try)."


Excerpted from "Sicilian Splendors"
by .
Copyright © 2018 John Keahey.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Map of Sicily Environs xvi

1 Street of the Pagan 1

2 A "Friendly, Inquisitive People" 24

3 Greeks, Arabs, and Gebbie 38

4 Literature and Oranges 59

5 A Knife Fight in the Ruins 76

6 An Orthodox Easter and a Bandit 104

7 Lives Among the Stone 135

8 A Day with the Leopard 148

9 Friendship and Tobacco 162

10 Maria Messina and the Journey Home 182

11 Riesi, and Racalmuto's Serrone 209

12 On Tourism's Cusp 221

13 Sicily Meets Its Last Conqueror 237

Afterword 261

Acknowledgments 267

Selected Reading 271

Index 273

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Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places That Speak to the Heart 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
besu 8 months ago
This is a great travelogue of Sicily and made me want to book my travel immediately. The writer is well acquainted with the history and geography of Sicily and tells it's story in an eloquent way . He talks about the past, present and the future with much reverence but in some instances is quite melancholic. I got a real feel for the place and it's people and find that the book could have been improved by adding a map of Sicily so that we could follow his route and by including some pictures of the people and places he visited would have made the book more enjoyable. It is a bit slow in places but I enjoyed the atmosphere he describes in great detail. Other than that, all I can say is that I will be going to Sicily one day! Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
brf1948 8 months ago
I have always had Italy on my bucket list. If I thought of Sicily at all, was as the Mafia homeland, a dinky little island add-on that I would see if there was time when I finally make it to Italy. Wrong. John Keahey brings to life this wonderful land of mountains and plains and spectacular sea views and seaside villages that shout out, calling you to stop and sit and immerse yourself in this varied life. I had not appreciated the fact that Sicily (and to a lesser degree mainland Italy) had been influenced by so many cultures as the land went through many many cycles of war and peace. Each war, each conqueror brought their influences in art and architecture, food and religion and Sicily reflects all of those changing worlds. Keahey has a wonderful way with words, and an obvious love of the subject matter in Sicilian Splendors. I can now close my eyes and see why Sicily must now go to the top of my bucket list. I received a free electronic copy of this excellent book from Netgalley, John Keahey, and St Martin's Press, Thomas Dunn Books, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.