Sicily – The land of Godfather and Marlon Brando!
The romanticism and the fear of the Corleones, the imaginary theme music from ‘The Godfather’ playing on and penetrating all the 5 senses – ahhh that’s Sicily! You will find more than a dozen videos of Italian Weddings with the theme music on You Tube – apart from a dozen more videos of real Sicilian weddings with people roaming around freely with Luparas (Luparas are shotguns of ‘break-open type’ and are traditionally associated with Cosa Nastra, the Italian Mafia dominant in Sicily. Ooops! If only these videos were clippings from movies! The wedding pictures above are from my photo gallery, though we didn’t see (fortunately) any Luparas around!
*Don’t forget to watch the video of a Sicilian wedding at the bottom of the article.
Suggested Starter: The Godfather theme song by clicking below. Special Effects, Drama, 3-D picturisation with a background voice reading out the text that I am writing – these are just a few of futuristic ambitions with my blog. But till then, I am doing the best I can – documenting my articles with pictures that my camera has clicked moderately ‘fabulously’ and I try to incorporate as much effects as I can, courtesy You Tube, fortunately for usage of which I need not pay any hefty royalty.
By choosing to arrive at Sicily by train, I realised what made the Mafia in Sicily, the Mafia. Well, the Italian railway is not exactly Swiss Rail. No offense meant to the people of Italy. If God refuses to grant me Indian nationality in my next birth (assuming that my Indian passport in this birth automatically entitles me to the Indian philosophy of 7 re-births!) then I would beg/bribe God to grant me an Italian nationality. Though I am not an expert in either begging or bribing, I am very sure that I will be a very good student (Indians are known to be good students!) and learn all that I can from the Indian politicians, if only they are willing to share tips on how begging/bribing can be done without any pretext, at random and with such elan! Needless to say, I could very well keep on using my skills (begging/bribing) that I have already learnt in my previous birth as an Indian, this time if I am born an Italian! On top of that I would get to feast my eyes with so many vibrant colours – for example, the shocking reds worn by my new countrymen. I will also feed my soul with all the masterworks created by so many of my favourite artists & sculptors – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci etc. I would eat at the food kiosks on the Italian Boulevards, the oh-so-freshly cooked food by affectionate Italian Mamas. And probably then, I will also own a great Italian body!
So, all my Italian friends, I mean no offense. I love Italy too much to mean any offense…
Sicily (above) had to be, I emphasise, had to be included in our Italian Itinerary. If visiting Florence was to see the works of art created by the man of my dreams – Michelangelo (I dream of him only because he sculpted David!), then visiting Sicily was exclusively for my ‘Godfather’ obsessed better half.
And I am very grateful to myself for not having read anything at all on train journeys to Sicily. From mainland Italy to the Sicilian Island, there has been, for a very long time, many plannings and controversies regarding the construction of a bridge – the Strait of Messina Bridge. The ‘planned-then cancelled-then again resumed-then once again disagreed upon plan’ is for a suspension bridge across the Strait of Messina connecting the eastern tip of Sicily to the southern tip of mainland Italy. If and when it is constructed, it would be the world’s largest suspension bridge.
Till then, the project gives hope to various Italian Prime Ministerial candidates to ‘use’ this as an electoral weapon as and when required. Very much like our own Indian ministerial candidates chalking out various public works programs. Some projects take years and years to finish. And there are some lucky and famous ones, which end up digging out and uncovering scams running into hundreds of crores of rupees – just like skeletons popping out of the closet!
These are only a few of the similarities between India and Italy that make me certain that I won’t have a cultural shock if I were to be born as an Italian in my next birth!
We started on our journey from Rome. Our train was air-conditioned. But it turned out to be, well just ‘general, Non-Ac’ compartments with sealed glass windows. I think for most of our journey we just stared at the mirror image of the text ‘Air-conditioned’ splattered on the outside of our window. In my motherland, things are quite similar. Hence, we were not at all perturbed. Infact, we were quite used to paying for services that didn’t ‘serve’ our purposes but were, well ‘available’! I decided to sleep on the lower berth because I felt that even if I could see the branches moving in the breeze outside of my window, I would get some ‘air’! After all, we feel what we allow our minds to feel.
Our co-passenger was a young man with tattoos in his arms and had gelled up his hair in spikes. He wore a T-shirt that had very severe graffiti prints. No harm, I said to myself, absolutely no harm at all. Having worked in advertising, I was supposed to have got used to people letting their ‘inner feelings and design personalities’ show up in various forms – less clothing, too much clothing; shaved off head, too much hairdo; tattoos proclaiming love to the different kinds of souls that they possessed – their music souls, their ideological souls, their philosophical souls etc etc etc… but I have to admit that I felt a bit intimidated. Not so much when his Italian Mama came to see him off in the station. She was too loud and very affectionate. And she clouded my thoughts a bit too much and I didn’t really see my co-passenger then. But now, I was scared. He had spiky rings in each of his fingers and sat rebelliously on the berth with his fist clenched. Why did he wear so many rings and why did he sit with his fist clenched? Was he a rebel? Was he an anti-institutionalist? A drug-addict?
I couldn’t forget that firstly, we were going to Sicily. And secondly, the three of us would be stuck in the same coupé for the entire night. What if he was carrying a knife? What if he was the youngest grandson of the grandson of the DON CORLEONE?
The ticket-checker came and took away both our passports as we were foreigners. He promised to return them in the morning. And to add to my worries, he didn’t speak English, neither was his coupé in the compartment that we were stuck in. What if this person was not even the ticket-collector? What if he just took our passports away and misused them for drug-trafficking? I was absolutely sweating. And then with the darkness in the compartment it dawned upon me, that the lights in our coupé were not even working! No AC, no lights, no passports. And traveling to Sicily with Don Corleone’s great-great-great grandson…
We were surely being smuggled into Godfather’s Sicily by the Godfather himself!
Our train arrived in a port, the port of Villa San Giovanni, near Reggio Calabria, in southern Italy. And our entire train was rolled onto tracks inside the hold of a huge barge for crossing the Strait of Messina, the strait that separates Italian mainland from the island of Sicily.
That meant that we were inside the coupé of a train (in which the lights and AC were not working to begin with and had sealed windows!). On top of that, the entire train was inside a barge! From my berth window I saw more trains with the same fate as ours, all parked on tracks inside the hold of the huge barge. I could see lines of portholes in the inner walls of the barge hold with the water level outside swaying up and down… I wondered whether this was actually real.
If the barge was to sink, we would have to first struggle to come out of our train compartments. And then, we would struggle to come out of the barge. Phew! I felt choked in double exasperation! I was trying to search for S, my husband in the upper berth. For emotional solace, I guess. ‘If we sink, we sink together’… my mind jabbered non-stop! How could we explain to people (if we were still alive later, just in case!) that we were inside a train which was inside the hold of a barge, and we sank! Naturally it would sink. I mean it had to sink, isn’t it?
But, quite obviously, men don’t think as women do. And S seemed to enjoy the entire experience! He would have also been thrilled if some scenes from Godfather really happened live in front of him!
The 2 hemispheres inside my brain were colliding! I couldn’t visualise myself being caught with the great-great-great grandson of Don Vito Corleone, that too without any passport – helping each other to survive, in case we sank, a la scene from the movie ‘Titanic’!
It took more than an hour to transport the train onto the barge hold at the Strait of Messina, cross the Strait, and unload the train back onto tracks in Sicily. We were like smuggled goods – sealed into air-tight cartons; rolled into train compartments; train compartments rolled onto the tracks of a barge hold; and everything transported together like a consignment of smuggled goods. 90 minutes soon passed. But, it seemed like an eternity to me. And after that eternity, I slept off when my mind couldn’t imagine and jabber any more…
In the morning, the ticket-checker (I thanked God atleat a few100 times for this!) came and gave back our passports. As I held the passports as if I was re-united with my long-lost children after a long time, suddenly a voice from the above berth called out in English – ‘Sister?’ I looked up and was shocked to discovered that we had a 4th co-passenger, all this while! He was snuggled into his berth, as if plastered with the wall. ‘Apni Bangali?’ (Are you a Bengali?)
What? We were four of us? And that too, one spoke in my mother-tongue? Why did he not make his presence felt?
The conversation that followed henceforth was in Bengali, excepting when he referred to me as ‘Sister’, which was for some strange peculiar reason in English. He addressed my husband, Dada, which is ‘brother’ in Bengali.
He started talking. ‘I am from Bangladesh. What about you? Obviously, Kolkata, right?’
‘Yes, we are from Kolkata!’
He went on – ‘But Bengali, right? That makes the 3 of us similar. You know during the crossing, you could have gone onto the deck. The coastline looks very beautiful.’
So, our Mr Bengali-Travel-Guide, why didn’t you say that before? I continued my interrogation – ‘Why didn’t you speak up before?’
He said looking at me – ‘Sister was so scared. I thought she will hit me if I spoke. By the way, this boy is very good. He is a college student. I could make out from the way he spoke to his Mama. Sister got scared of him unnecessarily!’
‘Yeah, but you could have said so, much much before.’
‘No, I felt shy. And quite dumbfounded to see someone speaking in Bengali while going to Sicily!’
I don’t believe this. Our Mr Bengali-Travel-Guide could have saved me from so many heart-attacks that were accumulating in our over-night journey to Sicily. He could have told me ‘Sister – this boy is a Mama’s boy, pls don’t get scared of him’. Or else, he could have told me, ‘Sister, the ticket checkers always take away the passports of foreigners and definitely returns them back the very next morning’.
He didn’t speak because, he felt shy. Unbelievable!
Anyway, we simply loved Sicily. It defied all our myths about men holding us at gun-points. Or us getting embroiled in some gang-wars. Perched up on steep cliffs, the roads along the coastlines (above) were sure to give panic attacks. But our journeys along the Sicilian coast soon revealed what the term ‘Mediterranean’ Blue was all about.
We would walk around the small towns like Taormina (left), sitting precariously above 250m above the sea. Taormina is described as the ‘jewel’ of Sicily. Taormina is scattered on ruins. The present town of Taormina occupies the ancient site, on a lofty hill. The site of the old town is towered over by a very steep and isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle. This inaccessible position attracted many ancient writers. Portions of the ancient walls may be traced at intervals all round the brow of the hill. Remnants from ancient buildings are scattered all over.
But by far the most remarkable ruins at Taormina is the The Teatro Greco (below), the ancient theatre. This is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily. It has been preserved remarkably well. This theatre is the second largest of its kind in Sicily (after that of Syracuse). And it is still now used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts. I wish we could attend a concert – Hard Rock being played on a stage composed with original hard rocks from an ancient ruin! Wow! But August must be the holiday season for even the local rock bands…
The afternoons were perhaps the most annoying. The entire island of Sicily takes a three-hour afternoon break, from 1pm till 4pm. Almost everything is closed except for a few restaurants. We gathered much later that in mid August (Ferragosto), many stores are closed in the afternoons, and some are closed altogether for at least two weeks! Most Italians go on holiday during this period. And they go as a herd. Can you believe that 70% of the population take their vacation at the same time? So, it is absolutely officially acceptable that hardly any work gets done during this period. We have to allow for this leverage as I am assuming that work gets done at other times of the year!
Quite obviously we ended up visiting Sicily in mid-August! And saved probably a lot on shopping bills! Which we quite obviously spent on our restaurant bills…
If you are interested in site-seeing in Sicily, may I suggest that you carry an excel sheet for various timings?
Archaeological sites are open from 9am-12am and 4pm-7pm, from Monday through Friday. But on Saturdays, the timings are from 9am-12am.
Museums are open from 9am-1pm from Tuesday through Saturday. They are also open on some weekday afternoons (which weekdays? Nobody knows. Perhaps, it depends upon each museum curator’s mood!). Some are even closed on Mondays.
Many (but not all) churches are open in the mornings from 8am till 12pm, and some are open after 4pm (which ones? Again nobody knows.)
Most shops are closed on Monday mornings and through out the day on Sundays but open from 9am-1pm and again 4pm-7:30pm on other days, including Saturdays. But some shops are open (which ones? Again, Nobody knows!)
The list goes on…
Restaurants such as pizzerias are open at evenings only from around 8pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Many are closed on Sundays and Mondays!!! Some restaurants are open for lunch, too, usually from around 12:30 or 1:00.
But NO PIZZA served at lunchtime!
I wanted to scream my lungs out… my head was reeling from utter confusion. Every town, every alley, every individual, every ancient brick in this island had their own ‘mood’, their own ‘timing’, their own itinerary.
I learnt to go with the flow. If one restaurant was closed, there were others open. If the bus you planned to catch was 20 minutes late, then you could still be on time by catching the bus which was scheduled 20 minutes before, but arrived now as it was running 20 minutes behind time!
What about crime? It is embarrassing to even suggest purse snatching as crime in an island where the word ‘Mafia’ has been invented. The creative Italian purse snatchers even use motor scooters to ride by as they snatch handbags. Organized crime doesn’t pose a threat to tourists. Mafia shootings are quite rare. You’re far more likely to see your co-passenger’s picture in the newspapers the next morning, reported to have been kidnapped than to witness his kidnapping first-hand!
I boast myself of being quite faint-hearted and I am okay if I didn’t have to witness one as part of my holiday package!
If we were to narrate one thing that we would never ever forget in Sicily was one lunch we had in a Restaurant which had fortunately remained open during the afternoons. We went inside the restaurant. An young Italian guy (Italian Men are either drop dead gorgeous or have potbellies hanging below their chests and this guy belonged to the former category!) welcomed us and ushered us in. Well, what we could gather was that they had ‘set menus’. He started calling out to his Mama/Aunty-cum-Chef that there were two new customers. Food started rolling out from their kitchen. He was serving us himself. We felt that he gave us all the attention in the world. That’s when we realised that the restaurant was absolutely packed and he was doing the same for each one of the customers.
We were gulping down each dish, all traditionally cooked Sicilian dishes with squids, sea-weed, olives etc and that were being served one by one. I was quite certain that his name was Antonio. He was so good-looking, he could have only been Antonio! He was bringing a dish, keeping it in front of us, and taking away the finished plates – so gracefully and oh-so perfectly. I was in love with Antonio.
We had an absolute feast. Some of the dishes were – Baked aubergines. Burgio: vegetable soup of pasta with broad beans, Cammarata: Sardine Pie, Ribera: Muleto fish in sauce… and so many more. He served us Lemon Cello (Limoncello), the lemon liquer that is famous in Capri, another drop-dead gorgeous Italian island.
I had read in the Lonely Planet that in Sicily a Spaghetti dish prepared in Black Squid Ink Sauce was supposed to be legendary. It had addictive qualities. Imagine food made pitch black with squid ink! I am a major foodie but I couldn’t make myself to eat the black coloured Spaghetti. As I have said before, men are different. My memory card recorded only the sunsets and the coastline, the beauty of the ruins, the desserts etc, while the other memory card traveling with me recorded the Black Spaghetti, the ancient convertibles, probably all belonging to Vito Corleone himself!
And then we had the desserts. Sicily is well-known for ice-creams. The island boasts of offering the original and the best ‘Granita’, a slushy icy sherbet that comes in the classic citrus flavors. In Sicily, there is a Sicilian version of this granita – an intriguing coffee version. It has to be typically had in the mid-morning with a croissant! ‘Cassata’ originated in Sicily. Originally, it was a rich sponge cake filled with ricotta. Then there were mixed Candied zest (another Sicilian speciality), chocolate drops, and pistachio nuts. These are now used for the famous ice-cream dessert composed of layers of chocolate and vanilla ice cream filled with whipped cream and candied zest, originally called ‘Cassarulata di Gelato’.
Marzipan creations originating from the region’s convents is another Sicilian tradition. Local confectioners have now started making their own variations by shaping marzipan into lifelike ‘pizzas’, ‘sandwiches’ and ‘salamis!
‘Canollis’ or tubes of sweet pastry deep-fried and then filled with ricotta and candied peel, and ‘Pignolata’, a cake of fried pastry balls topped with a lemon-flavored meringue – these are just a few of the sweetilicious desserts that Sicily is known for. And, irresistible to the sweet-tooth Bengalis.
The Sicilian atmosphere made so prominent by Coppola’s movie was evident everywhere. We felt that we were actually walking through the sets of the movie. Most Sicilian weddings are accompanied by the theme music from Godfather. ‘Speak Softly Love (Love Theme From The Godfather’, sang by Nino Rota can be heard everywhere. The song was written for ‘The Godfather’ (1972), the first film in the ‘Godfather’ trilogy. The instrumental version or The Godfather theme is now a signature musical theme. Infact, we had witnessed a wedding in Rome with the theme music of Godfather playing in the background. The newly-wedded couple were joined by well-wishers from their family as well as the onlookers as they danced to the enthralling tune.
The sparkling blue waters surrounding Sicily reminded me of the late night Fashion TV programmes showing photo-shoots of classic calendars where beautiful Italian models pose oh-so-seductively, with the sea water caressing upto their knees and their beautiful tanned faces visible through the wind-swept streaks of hair. Alarm started ringing in my head as I remembered the leaflets going around the hotel rooms cautioning the tourists that though nudity on beaches are legally banned, toplessness is permitted!
Well, I realised that we had to leave Sicily soon, before it is too late and my better half gets absolutely addicted. To the Sicilian Spaghetti in Black Squid Ink Sauce, I mean! All the food shots below have been taken from the net. The reason? Those were the days when I hadn’t yet started my food-blogging. We would enjoy our holidays fancy-free taking a few shots here and there – the pre-digital camera era!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
- PS 1: Dear Mr & Mrs Newly-Weds, whose picture I have extensively shot and uploaded – whenever you come across these pictures and want to sue me for exposing your privacy, please leave comments – I will immediately take action and remove them. But don’t sue me. Warm Regards!
*Below – A Sicilian wedding video
Disclaimer: I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals. While you enjoy seeing them please don’t use them as some of them have been taken from our personal albums just to make your reading experience more pleasurable. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.