I envy the grandchildren of the first Sicilian nonna I ever met. Hungry after a country walk, we landed at the front door of her small village café just as she was closing for the afternoon. She didn’t know us. She could have retreated behind her shutters for a cool nap. “Sit,” she said instead. “I’ll take care of you.” Did she ever. The simple meal was delicious. And on this walking vacation, she started my love affair with the Sicilian people.
It helped that we were with my friend Sergio that day. He has guided Classic Journeys on the island for 20 years, and he’s been an honorary son of Sicily for far longer. I’m not sure if he knows every Sicilian, though there were plenty of days when it seemed like he did. And the people were warm and hospitable beyond every expectation.
Take Mirella, cousin to the owner of Villa Dafne, a working farm with more than 700 sheep and a significant herd of cattle. When Sergio introduced us, Mirella’s wide smile was greeting enough. But then she herded us to the kitchen, pulled out aprons, poured wine all around…and put us to work cooking a communal lunch. I don’t know if we produced the best-ever batch of agnello al forno con patate, but it’s hard to imagine that the typical lamb dish has ever tasted better. I can still hear Mirella’s laugh as our conversation rambled to the farm-to-table food fad. For generations, her family has grown its own meals. Our trend is her tradition, and she was happy to share.
Even Sergio has to admit that Sicilians can’t be blamed for sometimes eyeing outsiders carefully. After all, the island was invaded and fell under the rule of 15 or so civilizations over the last few millennia. From Phoenicians and Greeks to Romans and Normans, they had their way with Sicily, often for centuries. A touch of caution is understandable, but get past it and you quickly feel how that history has made today’s Sicilians fiercely proud and independent.
Liliana showed us that side of the province’s personality in Siracusa. This city is as remarkable as they come. There, the world’s largest ancient Greek theater sits cheek by jowl with a Roman amphitheater built for gladiator fights. The cathedral is a remodeled Greek Temple of Minerva. Guiding us through, she had a historian’s gift for bringing it to life. But she also showed us a Sicilian’s pride in how those piles of carved marble became the roots of modern life on the island.
Stone of another sort — the hardened lava flows on the slopes of Mt. Etna — affects Sicilian life in ways that are very current. Just ask Giuseppe. Sergio likes to say that this energetic guide “leaps like a rabbit across the lava fields.” But it’s his lively imagination that will get to you. For Giuseppe, leading us across this incredible terrain was more than an excuse for a geology lecture. He drove home how Sicily lives in the long shadow of Europe’s most active volcano. From mild burps to occasional dramatic eruptions, Etna has been a constant in Sicilian life for thousands of years, and Giuseppe helped me understand how that feels and what it means.
Ultimately, I came to appreciate that Sicilians are romantics who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Our friend Alessandra proved that point in Agrigento. It’s the site of the world’s best-preserved ancient Greek building, the Temple of Concordia. Only a few hundred feet away, we settled into the only hotel in the archeological zone. From the dining patio, the temple was all we could see. But Alessandra whispered special advice, so that the tourists couldn’t hear. “After sunset fades, go to the lower terrace so that only the night is between you and the temple. You will not forget it.” I did, and true to her promise the temple floated like a mirage in the darkness. If I close my eyes right now, I can see it perfectly.
After this walking vacation, I saw all of Sicily differently. Past the volcanoes and beautiful islands, through the dusty layers of civilization, I found some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met…and some of the warmest hospitality that’s been offered to me in any place I’ve visited.
Read more about our walking vacations in Sicily: