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Please enjoy this article from Margie Longano Miklas originally printed in our June 2014 issue.
"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." — Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Sicily is an amazing place, yet according to a [recent] New York Times article by Beppe Severgnini, only thirteen percent of visitors to Italy travel to Sicily or other areas of southern Italy. They are really missing out, because once I went to Sicily, I was hooked.
On my first visit to Sicily, I felt at home there, perhaps because I am a second-generation Italian-American. My maternal grandparents came from Cesarò, a small village in the region of Messina in Sicily. What I found so incredible was that the Sicilians opened their homes to me without even knowing me. The Sicilian people could not have been any friendlier in Cesarò when I asked about a possible relationship between Bar Ragonese and my grandmother, Angelina Ragonese. The signora invited me into her home, and offered me food and limoncello. Remarkable!
In Palermo, the capital city with the largest population in Sicily, a tour agent operating a sightseeing bus spoke excellent English. When I didn't have my stamped receipt, rather than forcing me to get off the bus, the kind young woman let me slide with a smile and my favorite word, "prego."
Although Sicily has stunning seascapes, amazing architecture and glorious cathedrals, the Sicilian people won my heart. While some spoke English, most did not, yet their friendliness and generosity made me feel at home.
Last September, I scheduled a cooking class at an agriturismo in the countryside between Agrigento and Palermo. When I got lost despite my GPS, I had instructions via phone from the owner to go to another town and find my way from there. I don't even think the residents of Camporeale spoke Italian. What I heard sounded like the Sicilian dialect. Yet one wonderful young woman, who did speak and understand some English, arranged for another woman to drive her car ahead of mine, to guide me back onto the right road. These women must have been angels sent by God! For these ladies to take time away from their schedules to help a complete stranger from America is astounding. And when I finally arrived for the cooking class - an hour late - the owner met me and said he was just going out to look for me! I love Sicily!
Sicily is best visited by car. Yes, trains travel between the larger cities, and even some of the smaller ones, but these are not the fast trains, the frecciarossas, commonly seen in mainland Italy. These are old trains that are not known for their efficiency. So on my most recent trip to Sicily I traveled by car. Google Maps does not explain that itineraries in 30 km. may take an hour and a half to traverse, due to Sicily's winding roads and high elevations.
Another characteristic of the Sicilians, at least in the major cities of Palermo, Catania, and Messina, is tenacity, especially when it comes to driving. Not so fond of these drivers myself, I have discovered that very few, if any road rules exist in Sicily. Sicilian drivers drive their Fiats and Alfa Romeos at all speeds and think nothing of parking in crosswalks and driving lanes and driving on the shoulder of the road.
Stoplights are practically nonexistent, and stop signs are treated like yield signs. The locals say that it works, and everyone drives in a way that is best for them. I found it surprising that I heard few sirens and saw only a couple of accidents. However, almost every vehicle that I saw was either dented, scratched or both.
When in Rome do as the Romans do. Only in Sicily does this saying really apply, because there is no other choice. The decision to park the car once I arrived in Palermo, and take public transportation or walk was the solution to my frustration. Not everything in Sicily is perfect, yet I love it so.