Slopes and Saints: Exploring Southeastern Sicily

Sicily is a beautiful clash of cultures. Perhaps unfairly memorialized by the infamous mafia activity in the 20th century, Sicily should bring to mind a rich, diverse culture influenced by many different empires. If you can name a major Mediterranean power, there’s a good chance they ruled over parts of Sicily at one point or another. Greeks? Yep. Romans? Sure. Arabs? You got it. Normans? Yes indeed. Germans? Why not. Spanish? Throw them in there. Bourbons? Don’t mind if I do. You get the idea. Over the centuries, these competing empires unconsciously created an island of distinct flavors, customs, cuisines, and even language. Sicily may be part of Italy, but her people are Sicilians, not Italians. 

Since we were lucky enough to have a car during our stay on the island, we were able to enjoy the surrounding area to the fullest. Though it was mid-winter, the landscape was surprisingly verdant. As we drove to run errands, visit friends, or sight see in different towns, we admired rolling foothills covered in green. Citrus fruits were just beginning to ripen, and the deep emerald groves boasted plump oranges like tiny gems across the countryside. We also noted miles and miles of polytunnels – essentially elongated greenhouses – which explained all the fresh produce at market. Any land not covered in agriculture or buildings was dotted with rocks and boulders, characteristic of the naturally rugged landscape. Over the centuries, Sicilians have perfected the art of fence building with these stones. All across the countryside are dry stone walls, with pieces so perfectly fit together they don’t need a binding agent. Just dirt and stone. We can’t imagine the patience it takes to fit these together. Some walls look newer than others, of course, as the years take their toll on abandoned farms. Time, and livestock. Once or twice we had to pause on our drive as a farmer led his cattle across the road, stepping over crumbling walls on either side. No gates needed, they’ll just make their own.

Waste disposal in Testa dell’Acqua

Sadly, some of the Mediterranean beauty of Sicily is marred by trash. Littering the sides of the roads are bags of trash dumped by uncaring citizens or just loose trash blowing in the wind. Our new Sicilian friends expressed their frustration with it, but also their frustration with the lack of waste management infrastructure. The further and further east we went, the more I realized that I’ve been taking waste management for granted in the United States. To Sicily’s credit, there was a new disposal system being pushed while we were there, although it was definitely Sicilian in its logic. In Testa dell’Acqua, in the middle of an abandoned-looking parking lot, was a rather fancy dumpster. Judy taught us how to use it, and believe me, a lesson was needed. The large container had six small doors, each for a different category of waste – organic, plastic, wood, glass, etc. A small screen on one side allowed you to indicate which door you wanted to open, but then in order for it to do so, you had to swipe your national health card. Community organizers figured that rather than distributing new ID cards specific for waste disposal, it’d be easier to tie it in with a card that everyone already had. I guess that’s logical, right? In any case, whenever I went to drop off trash, we couldn’t help but giggle at the absurdity of it. The doors each took painstakingly long to open, and only one door could be open at a time. So, you’d have to wait for the door to open, chuck your waste in, then wait for it to fully close before walking around to the screen to select the next door you needed. We in no way condone littering of any kind, but let’s just say we understand how frustration can reach an upper limit.

To help us with navigating the logistical nuances of Sicilian life, we had Christine and Tim. Our house sitting hosts Judy and Jonathan introduced us before they left on their trip, and we spent several occasions sightseeing with them. Chris and Tim had retired to Sicily from the UK and were just settling in to their gorgeous villa on the outskirts of Testa dell’Acqua. Every now and then we’d stop in after touring for tea or a meal and we admired their countryside views, garden bursting with fruit trees, and friendly cats and dogs. Chris and Tim didn’t actually own any dogs, but the neighbor’s dogs knew how to take advantage of their big hearts for some treats and a warm blanket in their kitchen.

Cities, Towns, and Ruins in Southeastern Sicily

Our first outing with the couple was to Modica and Ispica. Modica was having a market day, and we hopped into Chris and Tim’s van expecting to be going to something similar to a farmer’s market in the US, or even just a produce market like ones we visited in the French Alps. We were pleased to be wrong. The entire main boulevard of Modica was bustling with crowds browsing the tables packed with antiques, unique finds, and old forgotten family heirlooms. As church bells chimed across the town, we browsed displays of Sicilian pottery and dinnerware, statues and furniture, and various tchotchkes (yes, I absolutely had to look up how to spell that). Chris and Tim explained that the most likely reason for all these unique pieces was related to the reason almost every other farm or land plot was for sale, and for exorbitant prices. Many Sicilian estates have been in families for generations, but now the younger generations don’t want to live in them anymore and maintain them. So, they empty them out in sales like these, and put the buildings or land on the market. They have no urgency to sell, so they price them high and hope someone is thick enough to pay that price. Otherwise, they can just sit on them forever. And so they do. 

The market at Modica

Our next stop was to visit the caves at Ispica. As mentioned in my previous post, Sicily is pockmarked with man-made caves and tombs that go back to the prehistoric era. Archaeological evidence points not only to prehistoric inhabitants at the caves in Ispica, but Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans as well. Naturally, when we arrived, the site was closed, so we weren’t able to get any more information than that. However, the outskirts of the site were open, so we wandered down from the parking area into the nearby canyon. The road leading down was steep, but despite the difficult access, it was clear that people still lived in some of the caves or at least kept some livestock in and around them. We saw entrances to caves with ancient-looking wooden doors and a modern lock jerry-rigged onto them, some caves full of boxes, and others full of hay for livestock. At the bottom of the canyon, we walked across a dried river bed and found a church built into the cliff cave. The facade was flush with the cliff itself, and although the interior was small and run down, that made it all the more evident how old the structure was. We made our way back up the canyon road, finding colorful pieces of tile in the dried river bed and snacking on an orange from a wild orange tree.

A church in a cave in a cliff at Ispica
Sicilian arancini and a cappuccino

Another outing took us all to Palazzolo Acreide, a town we were familiar with due to various errands and numerous trips to the vet. Walking the narrow, cobblestone streets in a small town nestled into a valley, stopping for espressos and listening to the vivacious conversation of locals is part of the Sicilian dream. We admired the three-tiered facade of the church of San Sebastiano, then ducked into our favorite cafe for cappuccinos and arancini. Arancini are stuffed rice balls coated in breadcrumbs, then deep fried. They can be circular, but typically you’ll find them in conical shapes in Sicily. Word on the street is that it’s to mimic the conical shape of Mount Etna, the volcano brooding over the horizon of southeastern Sicily. My favorite filling was ragu, mozzarella, and peas. It was hand-held comfort food, especially on a drizzle January afternoon. Palazzolo also has an ancient Greek theater and ruins just on the outskirts, but naturally the one time we had a chance to visit it, neither of us had euros for the cash-only entry. C’est la vie, or rather, è la vita.

Cross made from wreckage of refugee boats in the Noto cathedral

Noto was the closest town to the tiny village of Testa Dell’Acqua, down near the shoreline where we would sometimes take the dogs we were house sitting. The town was similar to Palazzolo, but the streets were slightly wider. The more spacious feel was probably attributed to the fact that the town wasn’t squeezed into a valley between hills. Perhaps most notable to me in Noto was stumbling upon a cross made from the wreckage of refugee boats, on display in the Noto cathedral. A powerful art installation reminding us of the plight of refugees in Europe, and across the world. We’d already encountered remains of refugee rafts on the beach where we took the dogs to walk – empty cooking oil containers used to buoy the rafts or to transport drinking water on the journeys. At the time of our stay, when refugees arrived in Sicily they were given housing in refugee centers. Oddly, men and women were separated, with the women in larger towns and cities and the men’s refugee center out in the countryside, one of them being near our villa. We’d often see refugees on the side of the road looking for rides or for work. Our hosts Judy and Jonathan had a refugee friend that did odd jobs for them, including helping to build the shelter for Gina, the neighbor’s donkey. When Judy asked him what he did with the money he earned, he told her that he sent every bit of it back to his family in Mali. We hear about the refugee crisis back home on the east coast of the States, but it’s one thing to hear about it, another to see it around you every day. These are people that risk everything not for themselves, but for dearly loved family that they probably won’t ever see again. They endure the most dangerous journeys, ridicule, ostracism, and worse. This is a global crisis that is human to its very core. I admire the Sicilians for taking on refugees, and can only hope that they remain as accepting to them as we saw when we were there. 

We’d often pass refugees on the road to Siracusa, a harbor town on the east coast of Sicily. Our first trip there was to see Vince Conaway, one of the most talented hammered dulcimer players in the world. We all know each other from performing in Renaissance Faires in the United States, and each year Vince does a tour of Italy. Luckily, he happened to be in Sicily at the same time as us, so we decided to meet up across the world. 

Vince Conaway playing next to the ancient Temple of Apollo, Siracusa
A distinctly Sicilian stall at the market in Siracusa

We arrived early that day and wandered through the open-air market in the city center. Fresh, bright produce was artfully arranged next to piles of spices, olives, and dried goods. We listened to the cacophony of shouts as we browsed, both from vendors hawking their wares and friends greeting each other from across the street. We picked up some fresh vegetables – Sicilian produce was always enormous and shockingly fresh, and in any case we consistently missed the produce vendor that came to Testa dell’Acqua each Monday. We met Vince next to the ruins of an ancient Greek Temple to Apollo dating back to the 6th century BC, something that you can casually say in a place like Sicily. Vince was playing for passers by who seemed perplexed and delighted that someone would play for them in one of the less touristy Sicilian towns. After an impromptu mini-lesson on the dulcimer, Vince packed up and we walked through the city center before we enjoyed a deliciously fresh seafood and pasta lunch together. He took us to the Piazza Duomo and pointed out the ancient Greek Doric columns, still visible within the walls of the cathedral built up over the ancient Temple of Athena. He also showed us the Fonte Aretusa, or the Fountain of Arethusa. This is a legendary freshwater spring that flows right into the seashore, an uncommon occurrence. It’s the subject of many tales, one of the more well-known being that of the nymph Arethusa, who was transformed into the spring by the goddess Artemis to escape the pursuit of Alpheus, a river god. Alpheus transformed himself into a river and mingled with the springs waters. There are many versions of the myth, but nevertheless, it’s a bizarre sight to see a freshwater spring right next to the Ionian sea. Knowing the backstory helps, otherwise your experience might not be unlike that of a frustrated reviewer on TripAdvisor, who described it as “just a small pond with some ducks. One star.”

Fonte Aretusa, with verdant papyrus to boot. Sans ducks.
The Greek theatre outside Siracusa

We would return to Siracusa with Chris and Tim a few days later. On the outskirts of town, there is a Graeco-Roman archaeological site you can visit. The main attraction is the Greek theatre, which still has Greek words and phrases carved into the stone, almost worn away by millennia but not quite. Walking through some of the ancient ruins, we saw the chariot tracks worn into the stone, reminding us of those we saw in Pompeii. We climbed up the hill past the theatre to see some more caves built into the hill side, then skipped over to the Latomia del Paradiso, or the Paradise Quarry. This used to be a limestone quarry, but is now overrun with lemon and orange trees. Some thick columns of limestone still shoot up into the sky, crowned with ruins that made us wonder how exactly this area came into ruin to leave something like that behind. We followed other tourists and found ourselves in a massive cave in the quarry wall, known as the Ear of Dionysius. The name was given by Caravaggio in the 17th century due to its similarity to the shape of a human ear. The opening is a 20 meter high pointed arch that curves inwards over 60 meters. Because of its shape, the acoustics allow you to hear the conversations at the entrance, leading to the myth that Dionysius the Tyrant used it as a prison for his enemies. Our final stop was the Roman amphitheatre, built in the 3rd century BCE, where in those times the arena was graced with gladiator fights and wild animals providing spectacle for bloodthirsty spectators chowing down on circus fare. 

The Ear of Dionysus

Back in the city, we headed to the island of Ortigia, a small island connected to the rest of Siracusa by several bridges. We’d already glimpsed part of it in our walking tour with Vince, but this time we went to visit the Castello Maniace, a citadel and castle built in the 13th century on the ruins of an even older fort. Passing from the Greeks to the Byzantines, it eventually housed numerous queens of Sicily and served as a prison before settling into the tourist attraction it is today. Although the halls and rooms were empty, it was still interesting to see the architecture and attempt to get good views of the Ionian Sea from the ramparts by standing on tiptoes to see over the defensive walls. The photograph at the top of this post is one of the views captured from a window at the base of the castle.

Festa di Sant’Agata

As extreme luck would have it, we were in Sicily for the Festa di Sant’Agata, or the Feast of Saint Agatha. This is the most important religious festival of the year for Catania, a city on the slopes of Mount Etna. Saint Agatha was an early Christian virgin martyr, murdered for her staunch profession of faith. Perhaps the most infamous example of her torture was the cutting off of her breasts. Each year in the beginning of February, a festival is held in her honor in Catania, where she is the patron saint. We decided to go on the second day of festivities, when the relics of Saint Agatha would process through the streets. We headed north on the chilly, drizzly morning of February 4th. By now, Clayton had some experience driving in Sicily, but navigating a major Sicilian city on a festival day to find parking should merit a medal. We passed several fireworks displays on the outskirts of the city, making us jump since we certainly didn’t expect that in the rain. Car parked, we headed towards the city center and almost immediately ran into the procession itself, which was a sight to behold.

Devotees pulling the ropes of the carriage housing the relics of Saint Agatha

First, we saw the people pulling. We stood in silent awe along with an applauding and chanting crowd as seemingly hundreds of devotees pulled on two long, continuous ropes that must have been a quarter mile long at least. Most were dressed in the traditional garb of white robes, black beret, and white gloves. The crowd grew louder and louder, and the ropes got more and more populated with pullers until finally what they were pulling came into view. The relics of Saint Agatha are in a silver casket and silver bust, and transported by an ornate silver carriage, bedecked with carnations, tall yellow candles, and images of the saint herself. The relics also include treasures, such as a crown that may have been donated by Richard Lionheart. Early that morning, the gates of Saint Agatha’s chapel had been opened to release the relics with three different people holding three different keys, accompanied by much white handkerchief waving and fireworks to mark the beginning of the procession. Several men were riding on the carriage, one ringing a bell at indeterminate intervals, others accepting lit candles from people in the crowd to place onto the mobile shrine. Later on, we would see the men dumping hundreds of burnt candles off at a designated stop so that carriage wouldn’t be too overloaded to pull. We decided not to follow the carriage and try to skip ahead into the city center instead, which resulted in about an hour of us regretting our decision and trying to find the procession again. You’d think a quarter-mile long procession with thousands of people chanting and applauding would be hard to miss, but Catania is big with twisting, narrow streets. Making it all the more impressive they can navigate through the city with those impossible long ropes.

Though the procession remained momentarily elusive to us, there was no shortage of food and sweets. Everywhere we turned, the streets were bordered with food and sweet stalls. These were no ordinary candy vendors, either. These were Sicilian sweets –  sickeningly sweet delights that melted in your mouth. There were piles of candies made of marzipan, marshmallow, almonds, caramel, and sugar syrup. It would have been overwhelming when we finally decided to try some, but the vendor at the stall we stopped at was so friendly, he kept letting us try different kinds until our blood sugar was through the tent roof. Eventually, we found the procession by asking two men dressed in traditional garb where it was in halting, Google Translate-assisted Italian. We followed the procession for a spell, enjoying the electric atmosphere in front of the cathedral as the crowds pressed in on us and the carriage. Despite the press, it never felt dangerous, even when we got within feet of the carriage itself and the crowds were at their thickest. It was just as powerful to watch the people around us as the carriage went by. Fathers hoisted small children onto their shoulders to see the relics, and hands strained reach out and touch the carriage itself. Many people joined in with chanting or singing, and there was a constant buzz of excitement. We ducked into a cafe for a quick lasagna lunch and to try the iconic food of the festival – cassatelle di Sant’Agata, or the Breasts of Saint Agatha. These cakes mimic the shape of women’s breasts and serve as a reminder of Saint Agatha’s martyrdom. Cutting into them with a fork felt…awkward, but I can honestly say they were delicious. The cake is made up of layers of sponge cake, ricotta cheese, chocolate, and candied fruit. We also tried some of the olivettes, small marzipan treats in the color and shape of olives, a reminder of how Saint Agatha sheltered under an olive tree while on the run and was provided with sustenance.

Cassatelle di Sant’Agata, a sugar-induced existential crisis, and lemon rind with salt

Perhaps the most memorable treat of our time in Catania was one that we almost completely missed. All day, we’d seen men selling what looking like melon slices out of the backs of wagons, wrapped in plastic wrap on styrofoam trays. After our travels in Asia, I can now say that they looked strikingly similar to the way durian fruit was pre-sliced and sold as snacks on the side of the road. Eventually, we caved into curiosity and bought a tray of two slices for two euros. Through gesturing, we came to understand that these were in fact the rinds of massive lemons, that were perhaps 95% rind to 5% fruit. The vendor didn’t let us leave until he poured a little salt onto our tray, and indicated we needed to dip the rind into the salt before eating. We did, and it was absolutely divine. It was like a tangy, lemon melon. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’m sad to say we only tried it once. Although there would be much more celebrating that night as the relics returned to the chapel and more fireworks were set off, we were chilly and tired after all the sugar highs. Bellies full of copious amounts of sugar, lasagna, espresso, and marzipan, we withdrew from the massive crowds and headed home. We left the remaining days of celebrations and events to the Catanians. 

The relics and treasures of Saint Agatha

Mount Etna

Our final outing during our time in Sicily was to Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. We’d been watching the volcano smoke ominously on the horizon for weeks. Mere days before we were to leave Sicily, we headed north to take a tour. The day dawned bright and clear, but all our research told us that the weather patterns could be entirely different at the summit of the volcano, and could shift rapidly. It was recommended to visit in the morning, before the clouds rolled in and obstructed views of the countryside. As our little car drove up the slopes of Etna, it was almost like we were in a different country. Sicily is brisk in the dead of winter, but it’s still obviously a Mediterranean climate as it really doesn’t get that cold. On Etna, however, it’s a different story. The ground was coated with several inches of snow, and the wind started to pick up. We parked at the visitor’s center, making our way through the various ski and gift shops to buy our lift tickets to the top.

View from the ski lift on the slopes of Mount Etna

The ski lift to take us closer to the summit was nothing short of terrifying. The lift car we were in clearly showed its age, and the strong winds buffeted us about like we were falling leaves in a gale. Suddenly, a strong smell of sulfur wafted into the car, making me cringe and try to desperately filter it out with my scarf. We climbed higher and higher, and the landscape became increasingly alien. Pitch black rocks contrasted sharply with the pristine white snow, and the wind blew whorls of snowflakes across the craggy slopes to deposit them in soft, wavy peaks. Luckily, we made it to the top safely, and we ducked into the small cafe to warm up and relish having our feet back on the ground.

The door we used to exit the cafe near the summit – surrounded by snow banks

There were some maps on how to get to the top, but we were sad to see that the summit was closed due to “blizzard conditions”, and they recommended not going very far outside the cafe anyways. We were disappointed, and a bit confused, because although it we chilly and windy, it didn’t feel like a blizzard. We found the door that led to the trail to the top, and stepped outside. Immediately, we regretted our decision and completely agreed with classifying the weather as a blizzard. Icy wind tore through our layers of clothing, and snowflakes hit our faces like tiny spears. It was the kind of cold we hadn’t experienced since Norway, and even then it wasn’t this dramatic. We lasted maybe thirty seconds before retreating back inside to regroup. We mulled about a bit and browsed some of the corny souvenirs, then geared up to try again. We stepped outside alongside a group of skiers that were bundled up to the nines, about to ski down the mountain. I admired them beyond belief. There was a lull in the blizzard, it seemed, and for the moment there was a clear sky and we could walk without falling over. We headed up towards the summit a ways, passing enormous vehicles that were either snow plows or transport cars, or both. Looking out down the mountain, we could see for miles and miles, and even caught glimmers of the sea in the distance. Turning around, we could see the summit easily. It didn’t look that far, but we knew looks were deceiving. It clearly was not a regular mountain, as the summit had a dangerously soft look about it – falling into itself as a crater rather than forming a sharp peak. We watched a small group in the distance as they approached the summit, all wearing neon-bright clothing. We can only assume they had a guide, since no one was allowed farther than we went without one. Suddenly, a cloud rolled in out of nowhere, obstructing our view and convincing us to turn back. 

Viewing the summit of Mount Etna, battling snow and wind

These were the afternoon clouds rolling in, and we knew there would be no more clear windows. Besides, the cold had gotten to us. We hopped back in the lift to get down the mountain, and the ride down was just as unsettling, albeit in a different way. Surrounded by the thick clouds, our little lift car was suspended in a sea of fog. We couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction, and as we swayed gently back and forth, we listened to the creaking of the cables and watched as cable car columns loomed up out of nowhere. Every now and then we’d come to screeching halt as they stopped the lift due to higher winds. One time the clouds around us cleared enough to reveal the group of skiers making their way slowly down the slopes, looking determined but to us, so small. Needless to say, we were thrilled to be back on the ground once more and drive back home to snuggle some cats in front of a fire. We had no one to blame for ourselves to leave our visit to Etna so late – we could have gone on days the weather had a better outlook. Alas, hindsight is always clearer. But regardless, we’re glad we went and hope to return one day to actually get to the summit and peer into the mouth of the volcano.

Etna was also our last sight of the West – as our host drove us to the airport at the end of our stay, we watched the billowing smoke disappear into the crisp Sicilian sky. We felt ready to leap into the unknown once again, but as we were to find out, nothing quite prepares you for the magic of India.

Jamming on the steps of the Noto cathedral. Like you do.

6 thoughts on “Slopes and Saints: Exploring Southeastern Sicily

Add yours

  1. Hi There, I so enjoyed reading about your time in Sicily, I could picture clearly what those places were like for you! Awesome writing 🙂


    1. Thanks you! It feels impossible sometimes to capture these vibrant places, but I’m happy that I can provide some insight!


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