Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Castle of Caccamo

Unlike Germany, where castles are a dime a dozen, Sicily has only a handful of them, and, of that handful, the vast majority were built by the Normans in the 12th century. (Some notable exceptions are the Greek castle in Siracusa and an Arab one at Donnafugata.)

So, once again, who were the Normans, and what were they doing in Sicily? Looking back, I see that I wrote a pretty good description of them HERE. The came from Normandy and won Sicily over from the Arabs and then proceeded to rule it and bring it to its greatest glory under just four rulers. And I mean GLORY! Sicily was richer than all of England and the seat of pre-Renaissance learning and culture. In the words of John Julius Norwich: "Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe --and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world-- as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own." You can read the whole story in detail on this PAGE by Vincenzo Salerno. (Point of interest--it is said that the red-haired, blue-eyed Sicilians you sometimes see are direct descendants of the Normans.)

Back to the castles . . . I recently visited the largest and best-preserved Norman castle in Sicily, and one of the largest in Italy, at Caccamo, east of Palermo. It is impregnable and was never even seriously attacked. I can see why, since it sits on a sheer rock 521 meters (1,709 feet) above sea level. Another reason it is so well-preserved is that it was inhabited by the descendants of the Dukes of Caccamo until the 1960s!

Take Dramamine after leaving the autostrada at Exit Termini Imerese for the ride up the mountain, but then it's easy enough to find right at the entrance of the town of Caccamo. There is even parking and it's even free! You can't miss it. It only costs one euro to enter, but my friend Michael had the nerve to ask for a discount for teachers. They just laughed at him.

The castle is a classic white stone structure with castellated walls, a moat, towers, courtyard, and an interior that is a maze of rooms and stairways, some open and some not. The structure is used nowadays for conferences and meetings, but a few rooms are semi-furnished to give visitors an idea of their use. The "antiques" and displays are pretty pathetic, but he castle itself and the views from up there are spectacular!

The most famous room in the castle is the Sala della Congiura (Conspiracy Hall), where here, in 1160, a bunch of Norman barons hatched a plot against William I (known as William the Bad). I guess he WAS bad, because when the rebellion failed, the leader was captured and "taken to Palermo, where he was hamstrung and blinded and left to languish in a dungeon." So much for tolerance!

Anyway, this is a pretty cool castle, a classic, really, and worth your time for a visit. The town of Caccamo is also very picturesque. Warning: do NOT drive off the main street! You'll find yourself in a maze of ever-smaller streets that lead to nowhere!
See all photos of Caccamo HERE.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Smoke Signals from Chief Etna

I captured this at about 5:30 this evening, just as I got home from work. Apparently, one of the craters toward the north side of Etna (I'm on the south) is shooting up these little gray clouds of ash. It's a nice contrast with the snow and the light of sunset.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All the Brave Young Men

The British World War II Cemetery at Siracusa doesn't have the beautiful location of those at Catania or Agira. It's right on the highway going into south Siracusa, no great views in any direction. It is, nonetheless, a moving place to visit. Almost one thousand soldiers, sailors, and airmen are buried here. Like the others, most were in their early 20s and privates. There are Christians and Jews and Hindus, Australians and Canadians and Indians and British. There are engineers, pilots, sharpshooters, a chaplain, a diver, and quite a few unknown soldiers and seamen. A few markers simply say "A Victim of the War." The cemetery is being renovated, and right now it's got very little grass and a lot of mud.

Three grave markers stood off to one side, not in the rows with all the others. They were markers for three men who were buried originally in other places were they fell and their original graves were lost.
In a few places, a number of men were listed on the markers, apparently where groups of them were killed together. The fighting in this area took place primarily in July 1943, as that is the time period on nearly all the stones.

Family members must have had the option to put lines near the bottom of the markers. Some are religious verses, some poetry, and some are personal. Today I took a lot of photos of those. It never fails to affect me in the same way . . . all of these men killed in the prime of life, or even before. War was not, is not, and never will be the answer.

See all photos HERE.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Finding the Canadian War Cemetery

It's a bit off the beaten path but well worth the search to find the World War II Canadian Cemetery here in Sicily. I have never seen a more beautiful location, a fitting place for these 500 Canadians who gave their lives in Operation Husky in 1943. Most of them perished in fierce fighting around Mount Etna in the last week of July. They were part of the British forces who faced the strongest resistance from the Germans as they retreated north toward Messina in order to escape to the mainland (which many of them did).

I'm not sure why the Canadian forces have a separate cemetery (the British ones are in Catania and Siracusa), as the same architect designed all three. But this one has location, location, location. It sits high on a hill overlooking one of Sicily's few lakes and Mt. Etna to the east, the hill town of Agira to the west, and the gorgeous rolling hills and eventual plains of inland Sicily to the south.

The stones are identical to the ones in the British cemetery in Catania, but with Canadian maple leaves on each one. Fallen service members from the French provinces have inscriptions in French. Like the Catania site, a large cross looms overhead, even though some markers have the Jewish star on them. The oldest soldier buried here was 57, the youngest just 17. Some markers have been visited recently. I saw flags, a faded photograph, and a hat. That 17-year-old would be 82-years-old if he had lived. Even while we were there, two local families visited and went specifically to certain markers there.
See all photos HERE.

One more Allied cemetery is left to see in Sicily, the one in Siracusa. I plan to do that soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

"The Balcony of Sicily"

I've had my eye on a mountain that looms in the west every day when I drive home. It is so high, I knew I had to find it and go to the top. I just knew there had to be a great view of Etna from up there. I did some investigating on my map of Sicily and narrowed it down to two peaks. One was a "scenic view" and the other not, so that made it easy . . . I wanted the scenic one, which lies across the Simeto Valley from Etna to the west. According to the map, the peak was 733 meters high (2,404 feet), and the town at the top was called Centuripe.

I talked Kendra into driving, and her little Audi convertible was up to the task, zipping up the switchbacks without hesitation. Like many of these remote Sicilian villages, the streets were narrow, crooked, and two-way when they should have been one. Nonetheless, we found a place to park that was close to the best views of Etna and the surrounding countryside. I swear we could have seen Africa if it had been a more clear day!

Centuripe rates only a few lines in the Eyewitness Travel Guide. There isn't a lot to see there but the views are spectacular. Once upon a time, this was an important Greek-Roman town. How THEY got up there, I don't have a clue! It is known as "the balcony of Sicily," a great name for a town with view.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A horse is a horse, or maybe a course . . .

In Sicily, horsemeat is a common meat right up there with beef, pork, and lamb. In the big supermarkets, it's just another meat counter, labeled EQUINE. Many people really like the meat, as it is very lean and free of hormones and other things they have in beef and pork, for instance. There are all kinds of cuts (see butcher photo in a horsemeat shop), but it seems best cut very, very thin and then grilled briefly, just enough to cook it. That is how we had it, on crusty bread, at the Agatha festival in Catania last week.

Where they get the horses, I have no idea, but I've never seen them being raised, only used for racing or farming or pulling Sicilian carts.

My friend Michael says, "I don't eat Flicka." Of course, he doesn't eat rabbit either.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Viva Agata!

Finally, in my fourth year in Sicily, I got to see Sant' Agata (Saint Agatha) in Catania! It was all I had hoped for and easier than I imagined.

Sant' Agata is the patron saint of Catania, a legendary Catholic saint of rock star proportion, who brings out well over a million people to see her for three days every February. Agata was an early Christian virgin from a wealthy family who refused to give up her Christian beliefs even when she was horribly tortured by the Roman governor (who wanted her) at the time. Her breasts were cut off, and this is often portrayed in statues (on a plate) and even as cookies that are made at this time of year. Eventually, she was condemned to be burned at the stake, but a violent earthquake occured and the local Catanians took it as a sign from God to stop the execution. She was brought back to her prison cell (enshrined in a local church on Via Agata) and she soon died there. The year was 251 A.D. Her body was returned to Catania from Turkey in 1126. Since then, Agata has intervened and saved Catanian and it loyal citizens many times, from earthquakes, the volcano, war, and more.

The three day festival of Sant' Agata consists of many events, but all revolves around a 24-hour-a-day procession of the relics of the saint and a bust of her semblance being taken all around the city on an ornate carriage pulled by hundreds of robed devotees pulling it with long, long ropes. It is considered a great honor to be one of these. (Note: Until recently, it was only men who performed this, but now there are a few women doing it, too.) As she goes around the city, various religious events occur at certain places until she is brought back to her silver secured room in the cathedral and locked away for another year.

My friend Jan Sibayan is the one who finally got me to see Agata. The first year I was here, it passed before I knew what it was, the second was horrible weather, and last year the soccer riots practically stopped the whole thing. Jan and I left school as soon as we could on Monday and got downtown early. After a cappucino at the Bar Kennedy, we found a great position in the Piazza Carlo Alberto where the main Catania market usually is and waited with hundreds of others for the procession. The atmosphere was festive with singing, vendors, families, and an air of expectancy. I had the feeling that many of the people were parishioners of the Church of the Carmine, on whose very steps we found a great place to wait for Agata.

When the procession appeared, some time after 4:30, many people took out white handkerchiefs and waved them in the air, which is symbolic of the return of Agata to Catania. They stopped right in front of the church, and us, for prayers, speeches, fireworks, crowd cheering, and the passing of candles, flowers, notes/interecessions, and even babies onto the 16-foot long silver "Vara" carrying the statue and relics of the saint herself. The purpose of these actions is to give thanks or ask for help from Agata. A priest and several robed helpers were there to collect all the stuff from people. This went on for quite a while and the towers got a little rest.

I didn't realize that it wasn't just the processors who wore the robes and little black hats and the medals, but nearly everybody there--man, woman, and child--wear the same outfit. It's wild. Flint, Jan's husband, joined us there. I told them we should all get the outfit and wear it next year, especially as we expect it to be our last year in Sicily. (See their guest blog from two years ago HERE.)

We then walked further into the heart of the city and the route the saint would be taking was lined with thousands as it began to get dark. Many people were on the sides of the street that passed her prison cell and went up a hill. Apparently it's really something to see them pull the very heavy Agata carriage up this hill. We saw Agata's carriage again later, from a distance, and experienced more fireworks. The city is decked out during these days with the traditional festa lights and lots of vendors with souvenirs, candles, and food. I already can't wait for next year. "Viva Agata!"

See all photos from this event HERE.