Sicilian Adventures with Wild Sage
"Prudenza!" the van warned, via a disembodied voice coming from my navigator advising me to be careful. I was cruising down a nearly empty highway in an extra-long 9-seater Ford Transit van, en route to Palermo to pick up my first group of the season -- and the inaugural tour of our brand-new company, Wild Sage.
I was excited, I was scared, and I was incredulous that after 3 years of Covid and then six months of planning, I was finally out of the home office and back in-the-field doing what I love to do. Okay, maybe not the driving-the-van part, especially as I entered a very chaotic Palermo and had to weave in and out of traffic like a whale heading into a school of fish. The final surprise came when Google told me to turn RIGHT up a decidedly one-way street, and the entrance to the parking garage seemed like an unattainable Holy Grail 200 meters ahead of me.
My savior came in the form of an elegant tailor, who emerged from his shop in an impeccable blue velvet suit. He said "There are two ways to do this: the legal way and the illegal way..." then he paused a moment, held up his hand, and said "Follow me." He proceeded to walk up the avenue, motioning to oncoming cars to move over, as I drove slowly the wrong way to the narrow entrance of the parking garage, that dipped down into darkness towards a locked gate. "I can't do this" I muttered, exhausted and sweating, and my Tailor Hero summoned someone who came out, took the van key, said "I'll take care of it" and disappeared. I don't often play the Damsel in Distress, but I've never been so happy to have strangers whisk in and save me! My Tailor then bowed, said it was his pleasure, and invited me to dinner, but alas I had a group to attend to. 😁 Below, some scenes from beautiful Palermo:
Before picking up my group I had spent 5 days on my own, driving a much tinier car in a quick run-through of the tour (Sicily Coast-to-Coast) to make sure all the elements were in place. I also had 2 extra days to check out some mountain towns and hiking trails for a new walking tour. After an endless winter of bureaucracy and computer work I felt like I had been shot out of a cannon, and the scenery looked like a living representation of our new logo:
The spring sunshine shone warm over the lush countryside and felt like I was on a classic Road Trip, with music blasting and my arm out the window.
The island is so vast that at times I drove for hours without seeing another soul (maybe just a few donkeys 🙂). I almost ran out of gas as there were no towns for miles around!
I listened to podcasts as I went, learning about how the Normans stormed Sicily a few years before fellow Norman William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, and about how Charles of Anjou -- a French duke appointed by the Pope, who wanted to counter the Normans -- didn't last long as his rule sparked the bloody revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers. The Normans left their mark in several amazing buildings, like the Palatine Chapel and royal castle in Palermo:
And the gorgeous Duomo and Cloister in Monreale:
The capitals on the columns all tell different stories from the Bible:
My little car had the unsettling habit of weaving and bobbing as I drove, seeming to swerve at odd moments, and I noticed a light on the dashboard that I didn't recognize, so I pulled into a gas station to see if something was wrong.
One mechanic told me it was the tires and warned me that it could be the alignment; another shrugged and said I should take it back to the rental counter (over an hour away by now). I was nervous about driving and kept imagining the wheels falling off and me skidding with a shudder into a ditch, but then a friend reported back that it's a new feature on cars that automatically corrects your steering if it senses you're too close to the side of the road!!! Who knew?!?
Crisis averted, I returned to the highway only to be jolted awake by a high-pitched "bee-bee-beep! bee-bee-beep! bee-bee-beep!" I searched for other warning lights on the dashboard and wondered when driving got so complicated 🙃. Then I realized it was warning me about speed traps so I settled in for the long drive from Palermo to Agrigento (and the stern voice warning me to "be prudent" wasn't commenting on my driving, but was also alerting me about speed traps). I imagine this is the face of the woman urging prudence 😄:
The temples of Agrigento are among the best preserved Greek temples in the world. They range from the 8th to 4th c. BCE and are truly spectacular:
The now-ruined Temple of Zeus would have been HUGE, as long as two football fields, with male statues called Telemon holding up the roof (or Atlas; a male version of the Caryatids found in Athens on the Acropolis).
Only one remains, and look how big it is!!! (see the grand piano next to it for comparison)
One of the things I was most touched by during my trip was the depth of pride the people have in their cultural traditions. Obviously many of these are at risk as young people don't want to commit to the hard work and long hours required to keep the traditions alive, but I hope some young hearts will be inspired to continue. Here below, the fabulous multi-colored horse carts that used to carry people and goods around the island. A traditional cart maker told us about how they only got motorized vehicles in the 1950s, so what now takes 20 minutes in a car used to take a day-and-a-half in a horse-drawn cart!
Or these hand-carved "pupi," or marionnettes, that tell stories of heroic derring-do set in Medieval times. The stories are inspired by the 16th c. epic poem Orlando Furioso, that inspired subsequent generations of artists, from Shakespeare to Vivaldi to Borges and Calvino. There are even warrior princesses!
The ceramics tradition is alive and well in the hilltop town of Caltagirone, that has a stairway with 144 steps that illustrate the variety of styles over the past 1,500 years:
Cheese-making is also a taxing process, especially if you do it all by hand as this family-run caseificio does:
They make all types of cheese, from smoked scamorza to the freshest ricotta:
And even sweet little animals that were placed on ceremonial floats during festivities and then handed out to children and families in need:
They had all kinds of animals, from the long-horned Girgentana goats (native to Agrigento) and a 3-day old calf who waited for its mother to return from feeding time ❤️
Sicily's fertile soil and sun-drenched climate have made it a prized island for food cultivation since antiquity. There were already three stable civilizations on the island in neolithic times (the Sicani, the Siculi, and the Elymians) when Carthaginian and Greek ships arrived in the 8th c. BCE. This amazing piece below is from the 3rd millennium BCE and depicts the union of male and female:
Long ago, Sicily even had miniature elephants, which may have given rise to the myth of the Cyclops as the bones seem to suggest one central eye in the middle of the forehead!
The Greeks were eventually taken over by the Romans, but they left us their majestic temples and one of the largest theaters in the world (in Siracusa):
On the tiny island of Ortigia -- at the tip of Siracusa -- a Greek temple to Athena was transformed into a church by the Byzantines and then the Normans, all of whom left the temple columns exposed. Amazing!
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the island became a football in the hands of competing teams, from the Vandals to the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Angevins, then the Spanish Aragonese who ruled for centuries. At first they lavished their attention on this rich island, but once they got distracted by "the New World" they let Sicily languish under the hot sun and it was left rudderless. The disastrous earthquake of 1693 led to a flurry of Baroque construction but otherwise the focal point of European advancement took place far from the island's rocky shores.
Below, the crumbling facade of the once-majestic cathedral in Agrigento:
As I drove around I marveled at this juxtaposition between old and new, brilliant and crumbling, bustling and deserted. So many towns are just shells of what they would have been 100 years ago, and you could well understand why so many people rushed to emigrate from remote hilltop villages to cities like New York and Sydney. I love these marvelous photos of children from a Museo del Costume:
The vast size and changing terrain are also what give the island its charm, as you can go from postcard-perfect beach to Alpine village in the space of a few dozen kilometers. And there are secrets to be found around every corner.
In the port town of Cefalu' you can see this fabulous smiling portrait by Renaissance artist Antonello da Messina (so much more fun than Leonardo's Mona Lisa, if you ask me!):
Or you can see this astounding Roman villa that was covered end-to-end with mosaics!
The Villa del Casale was well-preserved under layers of mud and earth, so many of the mosaics seem like they were made yesterday, like the unusual "bikini girls" in the gym!
There's art everywhere, from the ubiquitous "Moor's Head" planters and pots (from an ancient legend about the Arab rulers during the 9th-10th c.), to Baroque figures peering at you from the balconies, to the author of the popular Montalbano books and t.v. show, Andrea Camilleri.
As always, I get distracted by all the history and forget about the FOOD! Of course, it's delicious, and we had a cooking class:
It seemed fitting that our first tour would be in Sicily, cradle of Western Civilization and Phoenix-from-the-ashes success story of a once-powerful island that fell into neglect for centuries and is now remaking itself as a top destination for holiday-makers, beach-combers, history fans, and foodies around the world (let alone fans of of the t.v. show White Lotus 😁).
It's hard to believe that it's been three years since we were in full lockdown and I was stuck in my apartment by myself, gazing out the window towards the green hills nearby, wishing I could just go out for a walk. Two years ago we were in the middle of a six-month ban on leaving our city limits, and one year ago I was working freelance, riddled with doubts that we'd ever be able to start our own business. And today I'm the proud co-mamma of Wild Sage and can report that our new "Sicily Coast-to-Coast" tour was more than a success; I'd say we knocked it out of the park. 😎
A huge Grazie Mille to all of you for following my story these past three years, and I hope to be able to share my passion for travel with you again soon -- either here in the blog or in "real life." I'm doing another Sicily tour in mid-October so hit me up if you're interested! We also have some Puglia and Sardinia tours in the works, and we've got lots of fun new ideas for 2024, so VIVA WILD SAGE!