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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Introduction of the "Restoration Alert"

Restoration work on significant historical monuments holds mixed feelings for many of us. On the positive side, it is warming to see that the local authorities are taking seriously their responsibilities as custodians of our history and heritage. The restoration of such monuments ensure that the pleasure and education that they give are provided for generations to come.

On the other hand, it is often a little disappointing to have travelled half way across the world on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to find out that that amazing cathedral you have always wanted to visit, or that baroque town, or that Greek temple, is under shrouds of tarpaulin for the next five years while painstaking restoration work is carried out on it. While this does not spoil the moment it does dampens your experience a little.

Sicily is an island with more than its fair share of historical monuments that link us to millenia and civilisations past. It too, has more than its fair share of restoration work. What we at Siciliamo would like to do, is to alert any travellers to Sicily where and when such restoration work is taking place in order to prevent anyone from coming to these shores disappointed.

I hope this service is of use and we welcome any input from fellow travellers and lovers of Sicily

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Palermo, a sporting city

Watching Palermo play at home, amidst a noisy sea of pink and black, is a memorable experience. US Città di Palermo is an Italian soccer team which currently plays in Serie A, the top level of Italian football.

The Stadium Renzo Barbera has one covered stand, with three uncovered areas framed by the huge hills behind the stadium. The stands are two tiered, with both end stands curving away from the pitch. The Curve Nord is where you'll see the flares and the choreographed Tifosi (Italian for hardcore fans). Away fans will be allocated 2,000 in the Curve Sud, undoubtedly surrounded significantly by the Carbonari.

The stadium is located around 5km north of the city centre, close to the A29 Autostrada in the San Lorenzo area. To get to the stadium from the Stazione Centrale, catch bus number 101 or 107. The nearest suburban station is the Imperatore Federico Stadio which is on the road of the same name just south of the stadium.

Tickets can be bought online around two weeks before the games at http://www.ticketone.it/. Tickets range in price from €27.50 for a Curva Sud ticket to €72 for a top of the range Tribuna Laterale ticket. Tickets can also be bought from a number of Snai outlets in Palermo. For the majority of matches this season, tickets will not be on sale on the day of the game.

Stadium Renzo Barbera

Viale del Fante 11, 90146 Palermo

Glamourama : Ristorante Charleston

Those who would like to try a little haute cuisine, (paying prices that are "haute" too!) should opt for one of the most elegant restaurants in Palermo, such as the Charleston in gorgeous Mondello (about 10 km from Palermo).

Picturesque setting with incredible views: of course you pay for the privilege, but it's worth it.

Charleston is a classy landmark on the Mondello lido since 1913. This former aristocratic haunt is now the domain of head chef Nino Tantillo. Its aristocratic structure dominates the beach on a pier of its own. The speciality today, as it was back in 1913 is pesce spada (swordfish), simply and wonderfully prepared. Desserts are delicious, in particular cassata and semifreddo; an almond ice-cream cake drizzled with hot chocolate sauce. Again, it's pricy... but memorable.

Closed Wednesday in winter.
Viale Regina Elena, Mondello
Tel: (091) 455 851 or 450 171.
advanced booking is essential

Sicily, not only seafood

With Kofi Annan, Burt Lancaster and even Pope John Paul II as previous guests, it’s worth taking a 20 minutes taxi journey from Palermo to Monreale to this rustic, highly renowned restaurant tucked away in the Sicilian countryside.

La Botte (The barrel) was a traditional trattoria when first opened in 1929, eventually "La Botte 1962" was revamped into a top-class restaurant in the year in question by Celebrities' Chef Maurizio Cascino. The accent is on local specialities embellished with simple, fresh herbs, washed down with well chosen Sicilian wines.

Set in an ancient wine cellar, La Botte is a destination for demanding gourmet diners and offers typical Sicilian cuisine and a well-stocked wine list.

Specialities: gnocchi potato dumplings "alla bava" and wild boar with red wine...

"La Botte 1962"
C.da Lenzitti, 20 (S.S. 186, Km. 10)
Monreale (Palermo)
tel. +39 091 414051
Booking required

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Long live the lentils..and Salvatore!

Known all over the world as Italy’s first natural marine reserve, it is called the ‘black pearl’ or ‘solitaire’ of the Tyrrhenian sea : Ustica, is a special island that brings back eternal memories of my childhood. Ustica is an island that has never changed from that sleepy, beautifully preserved feeling, a timeless island not only because of its old geological age, but because of its people...

Signor Salvatore born in Ustica 75 years ago personifies for me the ancient, long-lasting - eternal feel of this tiny volcanic island.

I coincidentally ran into his stone-built house on my last trip to the island as I was looking for some Lenticchie di Ustica (Ustica's lentils) to buy. I found Salvatore still sitting under the ancient olive tree where I had left him some years ago. He was still weaving baskets of reed and cane with his gnarled hands. His wide-brimmed straw hat (which he wears while trotting along on his donkey, transporting vegetables) was on the ground beside him.

I walked across the road to the wall where Salvatore's baskets hold the produce they sell to summer visitors: eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, onions, capers, fava beans and the famous, delicious ustica lentils.

The crickets seemed to perform their never ending chirping tribute to a beautiful mid-summer sunset and I, once again fall in love with the colour of Ustica : pristine white and pastels of the stuccoed houses, black of the volcanic rock walls dividing the fields, red and purple bougainvillea and red, white, pink hibiscus bursting in flashes of colour, here and there. White-flowered caper vines grow from crevices in the the black rock walls and crawl along the cliffs which drop to the aquamarine sea.

As Salvatore keeps weaving his baskets, I ask him about the secret of his long life. A life of hard work in the fields, cultivating the land with his bare hands under the strong Sicilian sun.

"It must be the lentils" he smiled. "I always eat a plate of our lenticchie for dinner"

Cultivated on the lava rich soil of Ustica, local lentils are seeded in January and picked in the first half of June.
The little plants are left in the field to dry, then they are uprooted and collected in bunches in the stables in order to be struck.

Salvatore and his family still harvest the lentils in the traditional way : dividing the straw from the lentils trampling on the little plants with big stones dragged by donkeys and then throwing them in the air.

Ustica lentils Lentils are considered legumes with high nutritional value and contain about 25% of proteins, 53% of carbohydrates and 2% of vegetable oils. They are also rich in phosphor, iron and vitamins of the B group. According to a nutritional point of view, 100 grams of lentils are equal to 215 grams of meat. Lentils - just like all the other legumes - are characterised by a high quantity of proteins, a good quantity of carbohydrates and a low quantity of fats.

Ustica lentils are also rich in vitamins, mineral salts and fibres, in particular phosphor and potassium. Lentils are a food suited for the prevention of arteriosclerosis because the low quantity of fats contained in them are of the unsaturated type.
The richness in fibres make lentils very useful for the proper functioning of the bowel system and they are also useful in lowering cholesterol. Lentils are considered - thanks to the good quantity of proteins they contain - a highly nutritional food, especially when consumed together with cereals (such as rice, pasta and bread), are very digestible and have no cholesterol. They also contain "isoflavones", substances which clean the organism, as well as iron, calcium and vitamin B.

This is Salvatore's long-lived lentils soup recipe :

(about 6 servings)
1 pound (450 g) Ustica lentils
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
Minced parsley
4 tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the lentils in a pot with enough water to cover them to a depth of 3-4 fingers, and simmer them covered over a low flame for about 2 hours; keep more hot water handy should the lentils absorb all the cooking water. When they're close to being done, add the remaining ingredients. Cook for another half hour and serve.

Four-Legged Garbage Collectors Hit Sicilian Streets

Eco-friendly Sicilian village uses donkeys to help collect garbage

The hours aren't bad. They're strictly union: 7 a.m to 6 p.m., six days a week. And the job comes with benefits: a personal assistant, sunbaths in the park, photographs, generous maternity leave.
The job location is decidedly attractive, the peaceful and picturesque Sicilian town of Castelbuono, nestled in the hills just 10 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea. The climate is Mediterranean.

Candidates for the position must be female, with a strong back and long ears.

...Long ears?

Yes, because the newest employees in Castelbuono are donkeys — Teresa, Valentina, Cosima and Damiana — to be specific. Since February, three of the donkeys (Damiana is presently on maternity leave) have been walking the narrow streets of the old town every morning, helping to collect garbage door-to-door.

"We are saving money," Mario Cicero, the mayor, proudly told ABC News. "The service is just as efficient, and the children love them!" The idea of using the donkeys came to Cicero, 45, late last year. "Yes, the idea was mine. It's patented!" he laughed.

Always seeking new ways to be more ecological and beautify his town, Castelbuono's environmentally conscious mayor has been at work for 10 years in various capacities to make this town of 10,000 residents a model of environmental respect. The town is listed among the top 11 in Italy for environmental quality by the Lega Ambiente, or Environmental League.

Recycling the garbage began in Castelbuono in 1996 and is so successful that the town now separates 42 percent of its waste. "We are one of the most virtuous towns in the country," Cicero exclaimed, with his Sicilian inflection. It was after he became mayor in 2002 that Cicero decided to remove all the ugly, malodorous garbage containers in the historic part of Castelbuono and replace them with door-to-door daily collection of differentiated waste.
The citizens of Castelbuono responded and started separating their garbage, putting it on their doorsteps every morning.

But that was not enough. "I thought about what went on in the historic center of town," recalled the mayor, "where the tourists come across these trucks spewing diesel fumes and stinking of garbage. They block the traffic, too. So I thought, why can't we use something traditional, like our donkeys?"
So now in the small streets of the old town the rhythmic sound of donkey hooves has replaced the rumble and smell of the trucks.

The day starts early for the donkeys as they get groomed and saddled in the little public park on the edge of town. Breakfast is stale bread, prepared for them by their caretaker, Vincenzo Mazzola, a local expert in all things equine. For the moment, the donkeys live in the park.
"I like to let them loose as much as possible," said Mazzola, so afternoons are often spent grazing on empty plots on the outskirts of town. The local agriculture school is preparing proper quarters for them.
"They are all Sicilian donkeys," explained the jovial Mazzola. "We only keep females, because they are generally more docile, and they produce milk and foals."
Donkey milk, it turns out, is a blessing for babies and young children who are allergic to cow's milk. "It's an excellent milk, very sweet, and good for nursing mothers and babies," said Mazzola.
The donkey venture was given a lot of thought. It is not just about charm. "It is educational for the kids, selling milk will provide money for the school, and it is a service to the community," explained the mayor.
At the park, each of the three donkeys is saddled with a leather and blanket affair, and big wooden boxes are tied on either side. The town first tried the more traditional baskets, but those were too deep to reach into. So it settled on boxes — the same kind that 50 years ago were used to transport sand, rocks and other building materials (the bottoms have a hinge and fall open).
At around 7:30 a.m., the three donkeys set out for their routes, each one accompanied by a garbage collector. The men who partner with the donkeys all volunteered and seem both amused and resigned to the task. "You are walking instead of driving," said Mario Citta, "but as long as I have a job …"

Dressed in his bright orange reflective jumpsuit, Citta leads a somewhat reluctant Valentina through the old narrow streets of Castelbuono, pulling her up the hills and stopping here and there to pick up the small bags of rubbish and throw them in the boxes, taking care to keep the weight even on both sides.
"Today we are collecting 'umido,'" Citta explained. "Umido" is what they call organic waste, which will eventually be composted in the planned compost plant. On other days, recycling and "undifferentiated" garbage is picked up. When the boxes were full, Citta stopped at a garbage container on the edge of town and emptied them out.

Women look out for the donkeys from their balconies, and lower their garbage on a string, which Citta dutifully unhooks and drops in the boxes. One woman called to her little boy to come out and see the donkey. "It's a good thing," the elderly Rosario Fiasconaro said, watching from the doorstep. "They come every morning and pick up the bags. It's better than the garbage cans."
But not all the residents of Castelbuono approve. "The townspeople were originally very skeptical," said local police officer Vincenzo Fiasconaro as he watched the donkeys being saddled. "But many people have changed their minds."
But not one resident, who sneered as a donkey passed by. He had a mule 50 years ago "out of necessity, but now there are cars! And the donkeys escape and could kick someone."
He predicted that if the city council changes (elections are May 14) the donkeys will go, "and I hope it changes," he said, as he handed out campaign stickers for the opposing candidate for mayor.
And a street sweeper grumbled that it is all just a publicity gimmick for the mayor, who is up for re-election. "The donkeys take twice as long to do the job," he said.
But Cicero insisted the donkeys are just as efficient and more economical as the "traditional" means of garbage collection. "Three donkeys and three men do the work of two small trucks with four men," he explained. A donkey costs around $1,600 to purchase, compared with $40,000 for a truck. And a truck lasts about five years. A donkey can work until it retires at age 24 or 25. The town is also saving $380 a month in diesel fuel.

But it is not only a question of saving money or improving the environment, as the mayor is very well aware. He has also found something to distinguish Castelbuono from other charming hill towns.
"I also think that if we want Castelbuono to become a tourist attraction, and we cannot compete with places like Palermo or Taormina, we have to have something that is both useful and unique, Cicero said. "In Palermo, you won't see donkeys collecting garbage, but at Castelbuono you will."

But like many public administration jobs in Italy, the fate of Castelbuono's donkeys depends on this Monday's elections. "If I am re-elected, they certainly stay," said Cicero. "I don't think a new administration would put the garbage cans back in the streets, and I doubt they would send the donkeys away. But I have no way of knowing."

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Upcoming event : Dance of the Devils

To participate in the large number of feasts that take place during the Holy Week in Sicily is not an easy task, but it is certainly a touching experience. Every town, village and country-side becomes the stage of solemn ceremonies, all of these characterised by the slow steps of processions, by the silence or the funerary or joyful notes of the bands. Every situation show his own particularity of remarkable interest. The people religious participation is the expression of an ancient ritualism which represents the heritage of the Spanish colonization and of Jesuits' great power.

Unique in Italy, a grotesque Dance of the Devils (Il Ballo dei Diavoli) is a must-see and it takes place on Easter in this medieval town, a 2-hour drive south of Palermo, deep in the Sicilian interior.
The cosmic struggle between good and evil rages in the remote village of Prizzi, in the picturesque heart of Sicily, spilling out into the streets every Easter. The Dance of the Devils is performed by villagers wearing large and terrifying iron masks. The men of the town dress up in colourful costumes with tied-on tails, hide their faces with red masks and stick out long leather tongues, blaring on trumpets and jangling chains from the early morning, with the sole purpose of disturbing all religious activity. The locals' behaviour represents the saturnalia of evil forces who are indulging in bad behaviour after Christ's crucifixion. Death and the devils rampage through the village to collect their dues: the souls of the passers-by. Having attempted in vain to prevent the meeting of the resurrected Christ and the Virgin Mary, however, the devils are defeated in the afternoon, and order is restored.

When: 16 - 23 Mar 2008 (annual)
Where: Prizzi

Getting there : Prizzi is 78 kilometres from Palermo. Buses run from Palermo's Central Station, though not on Sundays.By Car: take the fast route to Agrigento, turning off at Lercara, then follow the signs.
Cost: Free

Goblets of Stars. Wine tasting at night

Tours and guided tastings on the starry night of San Lorenzo.

Overview : A visit to one of Sicily’s most beautiful and best-tended vineyards by moonlight. Guided tour of the vinification cellar and photovoltaic installation for solar energy, a renewable and non-polluting power source. Video of grape harvesting and wine making at the Donnafugata estates in Contessa Entellina and on Pantelleria (duration: about 10 minutes). There will be a special selection of Donnafugata wines for tasting during the evening.

As usual, August 10 is the date for the “Calici di Stelle” (“Goblets of Stars”), an event held in the splendid setting of the Donnafugata Estate (at the 60 kilometer stone on the Palermo-Sciacca limited-access Highway 624).
This program, a nationwide event organized by the Wine Tourism Movement and now in its 6th edition at Donnafugata, has become one eagerly awaited by lovers of fine wine.
It will be an important event for the estate staff, too, who during the evening will be able to meet and talk with the numerous and knowledgeable wine lovers arriving from all over Italy and abroad. Last year about a thousand people attended the most glamorous wine event in Sicily.
The “La Fuga” Chardonnay vineyards, lit up for the occasion, will be the setting for the first leg of the guided tour, where the technical staff will illustrate how vineyards are tended and the vines are grown and pruned. As they walk through the vineyard, visitors may even taste some grapes from this premium vines.
The tour then continues to the estate’s vinification cellar where technology and innovation are mixed with systems to protect and defend the territory, values always espoused at Donnafugata, which manages to cover more than 30% of the cellar’s energy needs with a photovoltaic installation inaugurated in 2001.
Afterward visitors can watch an extremely brief film, “Donnafugata on Pantelleria,” the island of Ben Ryé, to learn about this Sicilian winery’s commitment, values and important endeavors.
The height of the evening and the moment wine lovers look forward to most will be the tasting of a special selection of Donnafugata wines, including some authentic gems: Sherazade 2006, a new red made from Nero d’Avola and Syrah, Chiarandà del Merlo 2000, Mille e una Notte 1998. And of course, the sweetest are sampled last, Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria.

When: Friday, August 10, 2008 - from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Price : The price of the tasting is € 5 to be paid at the entrance. In addition we ask that you leave a € 5 security deposit for the wine glass, which will be given back when the wine glass is returned.
Booking : Reservations required at the phone number +39 0923 724245 or via e-mail at info@donnafugata.it. Just give a last name and the number of people in your group.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The "Real" Magna Graecia

There is a saying : if you want to see Greece-go to Sicily.

How true : The best preserved temples are in Sicily and not in Greece, hence if you will visit Greek temples in Greece after having visited the Sicilian ones, you will be truly disappointed.
Sicily was a highly regarded part of Magna Graecia, with the great Roman philosopher and orator, Cicero, describing Siracusa (Syracuse), as "the greatest and most beautiful city of Ancient Greece". In fact, by 300 BC, Siracusa was the most populous Greek city in the world and rivalled even Athens for political and military power, and at once stage defeating the mighty Athenian army in 413 BC during the Hellenic Peloponnesian Wars.

Agrigento and its Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) features the largest collection of classical Greek ruins in the world. It is a must-see!

Dramatically perched along a long rocky scarp, among the extensive grounds are many well preserved temples, monuments and other buildings which create a truly surreal atmosphere. The temples are even more impressive at night when they are lit up by massive lights.

Other equally marvellous temples and amphiteathres are to be found in Segesta, (where each Summer, a series of classical Greek dramas are performed in Italian), Selinunte and Syracuse. But there are several, smaller-scale Greek ruins scattered everywhere all around the island, like in Akrai, Himera, Megara Hyblaea. By far the most breathtaking Greek Theatre of them all is located in the incredibly well preserved mediaeval city of Taormina, where you can enjoy sweeping views of the Mediterranean under the backdrop of the imposing volcano, Mount Etna.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Villa of Monsters

Gnomes, dragons, jesters, musicians and symbols of a mysterious esoteric language are all part of what has been defined as "the most original villa in the world and famous throughout Europe".

Villa Palagonia's construction began in 1715, on behalf of Don Ferdinando Gravina and Crujllas, 5th Prince of Palagonia, Peer of the Realm, Knight of Toson d'Oro, a prestigious honour bestowed by the king of Spain. Sicilians never figured it out whether the prince was a bit nuts or simply possessed a very creative mind, but Villa Palagonia has a strong appeal for everyone.

The decorations atop the stables that surround the Villa are indeed the best part. Here you will notice that the statues seems to fall over one another as they prance around. Was this another weird decorative idea that went too far or was the Prince trying to tell us something? Some experts believe the surreal statues were commissioned to represent the lovers of the Prince's faithless wife...

Villa Palagonia is in Bagheria, a coastal town only a short drive from Palermo. Bagheria is not a particulary attractive town per se, but like a pearl in an oyster, the villa reveals itself...

In 1885 the villa was acquired by the Castronovo family, which thanks to its heirs, still today make it possible to visit one of the most extraordinary monuments of European baroque, created in the land of Sicily.

Open to the public every day from 9:00 to 13:00 and from 15:30 to 17:30 (from 1st November - 31st March)
from 9:00 to 13:00 and from 16:00 to 19:00(from 1st April - 31st October)

Piazza Garibaldi, 3 - 90011 Bagheria (PA) Tel.091/932088 - Fax 091/922118

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Strange case of the Sicilian pastry

By Mary Taylor Simeti for the Financial Times.com

In Sicily, there is no escaping history. Turn over a stone and you find a fragment of Byzantine pottery; ask a few questions about your favourite pastry and you are treated to a saga of monasteries and mayhem.

I had thought to write a straightforward description of the ravazzata, a pastry specific to the town of Alcamo where my husband grew up. I wanted to praise the discreet charm of these round, patty-shaped pastries, the measured sweetness of the ricotta filling within an unassuming exterior of golden crust. They are as distant from the rich and gaudy confectionery of Palermo - the cannoli and the cassatas studded with candied fruit - as the convent churches of Alcamo, hiding exquisite stuccos by Giacomo Serpotta behind simple stone exteriors, differ from the glittering, colourful mosaics of the Arab-Norman churches in Sicily's capital.

The consensus of opinion in Alcamo is that the best ravazzate are found at Cafè Napoleon, a bar and pastry shop on the Corso Stretto, the leg of the main street that narrows as it passes through the medieval part of town. But that is as far as I could get: no one could tell me if the ravazzata had been conceived in the kitchen of a commercial pasticceria or, whether like so many Sicilian pastries, it was the invention of some ingenious nun. Nor could anyone explain to me the etymology of its name.

A Sicilian pastry without a history - impossible! I turned for answers to a local historian, an ardent student of Sicily's gastronomy. "The ravazzate of Alcamo? Why, they began in 1887," I was told. I was bowled over by such unexpected precision, rare in a field where most of the artefacts have been either eaten or composted.

It appears that 1887 was the year in which a certain Signor Albanese returned from exile in South America (whether this exile was imposed by the judiciary or by the local mafia is not entirely clear to me) and opened a bar called Cafè do Brazil on the main street of Alcamo. He hired as his pastry chef Giuseppe Dattolo, who had been working as a doorkeeper for the Benedictine convent of San Martino in Erice, a medieval town perched high on a mountain some 30 miles west of Alcamo, still famous today for its pastry-making tradition. Dattolo and his wife had run errands for the nuns and had helped them in the kitchen, where they made pastries to sell in order to support themselves (religious orders in Italy had their properties confiscated after the Unification of Italy in the 1860s, and the monasteries were in a bad way). But Dattolo had been diagnosed with weak lungs and was advised to leave the cold, damp heights of Erice.

There is no way of knowing whether Dattolo continued to make the ravazzate for the Cafè do Brazil in the exact same fashion that the nuns of San Martino made them or whether he perfected them. Certainly they had evolved: the name ravazzata, the historian told me, comes from a word meaning leftovers - in Palermo, in fact, it is the name of a savoury street food made from stale bread - and indicates that they were originally fashioned from the scrapings and leavings of other pastry-making, a common trick in frugal nunneries. In any case, they were excellent, and the café prospered and became Alcamo's leading pastry shop, so much so that at the end of the great war a certain Signor Rubino decided to open a rival shop on the Corso. With promises of higher pay, he lured Dattolo from the Cafè do Brazil, which went into a decline and eventually folded. Albanese, upset by this turn of events, took revenge by chopping down Rubino's vineyards, a fairly common form of vengeance in these parts. Albanese went to jail.

It was Rubino's turn to prosper. His establishment changed hands and names through the decades, and although most middle-aged Alcamesi still tend to call it Sanacore, in the 1980s the current proprietor renamed it Cafè Napoleon. The excellence of the wares has not changed, however, and it is even today the best place to try a ravazzata, especially in the morning when they are still warm from the oven.

Mary Taylor Simeti is the author of several books on Sicily including 'Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food'

Air Malta boosts flights number to Sicily

Air Malta has announced changes to its summer timetable that will see an increase in some of its flights from airports in the UK.

The carrier will boost flight numbers on its route between Gatwick Airport and Catania in Sicily to five per week from April 4th by operating an extra service on Fridays, TravelMole reports.