Sicily, Persephone and Trinacria. These are just a few names bestowed on the beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. It was Persephone I was thinking of as I saw the island rise from the sea during my first visit in 1996 as our traghetto (ferry) crossed the strait of Messina. Sicily has been forged by the cultures of Greek, Roman, Byzan-tine, Arab, Norman, German and Spanish Bourbons which has left a diverse legacy for today’s Sicilians. I was excited to meet my husband’s family and to explore the homeland of his ancestors. I never imagined it would become my second home and such an integral part of my life.
We spent numerous summers living on the island and tried to return every few years. After our last visit in 2018 we could not wait to return. When travel restrictions began to ease, we made plans to return this past September.
As we prepared to land in Catania in mid-September, I looked out the window for the imposing sight of Mount Etna. The highest and most active volcano in Europe is visible from well over half of the island on a clear day and this year I was determined to see it up close in person.
On the ride to Graniti I noticed how green everything was and how the flowers were still blooming. Crossing the bridge that led to the village, we took the final windy road that offered a glimpse of the town tucked between the mountains. For the next three weeks our visit centered around the family. In the evening, after dinner, we started a new tradition of playing 500 rummy. This became an almost nightly ritual, often played outside on the third-floor terrace.
I woke in the morning to the church bells and a view of the mountain in front of our house. I listened carefully for the sound of sheep heading up the mountain trail in the morning and coming back down around five in the afternoon. There was no need for checking the time, the rhythms of life here are not always set by a clock.
We spent the first few days walking about the town to see what was new and to revisit what had not changed. We were greeted everywhere with smiles and a chat as though we had never left. My first stop of course was my husband’s cousin’s pasticceria where we scooped up chocolate cornetti (for me) and S-cookies for him. A few days later we drove to the city of Barcelona past Milazzo for a large family dinner. The view from the apartment balcony was spectacular. It was a cloudless day and several of the Aeolian Islands were visible, strung out like sentinels across the sea. There were about 20 of us around the table, which was laden with all homemade dishes and desserts.
Over the next few days, we began planning day trips to places we had not yet visited on the island. Since the weather was still warm, we headed to the beach near Giardini Naxos, which sits under the beauti-ful city of Taormina. The water was clear and warm, and the beach practically deserted as we swam in the sea and enjoyed the views.
A few days later we headed up to Mount Etna with two family members. We took an exit near Acireale, on the south side of the volcano, passing through the towns of Linguaglossa and Mareneve before ascending into the forest and traveling over 18 kilome-ters to Piano Provenzanao in the Parco di Etna. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the temperature dropped by about 12 degrees as we traveled through pine forests along the winding road. We saw different camping areas along the way before we began to pass through the lava fields. Some of them were barren but others sprouted fresh green trees that had grown out of the fertile lava field. We stopped at a few points to take pictures, including one of a lava field with a view of the sea below.
The wind was blowing strongly as we exited the car, and since the ski lift was closed and we couldn’t go further up the volcano, we spent about 30 minutes wandering through the little gift shop cabins. There were groups of people “trekking” further up the volcano or on their way down. Descending once again, we pulled off the main road to visit one of the many religious grottos dotted throughout the mountain.
Before our next day trip, we walked around Graniti searching for and looking at murals and artistic works that were on display throughout the small paese. The project is known as the Graniti Murales Artist Residency, which provides an opportunity for national and international artists to break out of their studio, to bring their artistic talent to this unique rural town in the northern mountains of Sicily. Tour buses now come through here as part of local tourism efforts and two or three times visitors stopped to ask us where they could find the murals. I was also surprised to find the town now had some B&Bs, opened within the past few years.
On steps leading down to the main piazza we found an old bike repainted and hanging on the wall with flowers in the basket, while near the church of San Basilio we found several woodcut designs affixed to old wooden doors of an ancient house. The painted murals are extremely vibrant, two of my favorites depicted both a Vespa, which is a popular modern form of transport and a Sicilian carretto. Sicily’s “carretto” is a histor-ical cart whose origins date back to the early 1800s, and also one of the region’s symbols. There is also a scene of neighbors conversing as a young boy watches a mouse climbing up a wall.
One afternoon we wandered through the campo santo (cemetery) where my husband paid his respects to relatives who have passed and where I marveled as usual at the familial connections. People in the town can tell you who they are related to, often to great-great grandparents and cousins many times removed. My husband is not asked what he does for a living or where he lives, but to whom he is related. This may seem quaint to us, but it is the glue that binds communities together.
In the next issue I will be taking you along to the towns of Punta Secca, Modica, Noto, Ragusa, Scicli, Savoca, Montalbano di Ellicona and Ortigia. These were places I had never visited before, and they may be off the beaten track, but they offer both a vision of the history of Sicily and modern-day trends that reflect the soul of this island.