Mention the word
for many, the first images that come to mind, are the mafia, the
Godfather movies, or horse heads sharing your pillow.
Mention vacationing in
Italy and the first suggestions most people
make are Tuscany,
the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre. Plus maybe
Florence, or Venice.
for some reason, seems pretty far down the list of popular Italian destinations.
That's unfortunate really, but as a travel
photographer, that’s also exactly what interested me.
Looking like the football being kicked by the boot of
Italy, Sicily is the largest island in the
Mediterranean, and is pretty much in the center of the Med, below
Europe, and above Africa.
It’s been burnished by a parade of conquerors
including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the
Spanish, each contributing to the rich mix of culture, cuisine and
architecture that is today's Sicily.
There are fishing villages, vineyards,
volcanoes, rustic hill towns, and offshore islands, There are also
Greek temples, the chaotic magnificence of Palermo and of course,
excellent Sicilian food and wine.
My wife & I flew into
airport and picked up the rental car that we’d be using for the
next three weeks. We’d decided that rather than starting in
Palermo, we’d spend the first five nights in the town
of Castellammare del Golfo on the
northwest coast and using that as a base, explore the western side
rather than packing and moving on each day.
Castellammare has a photogenic cliff-backed
harbor with a castle, colorful fishing boats, beach, and a
portside promenade lined with restaurants and clubs. Just a
handful of tourists were there during early May.
The western side of Sicily is less developed
than the east and is crisscrossed with back roads through an
idyllic landscape of rolling hills, vineyards and rustic
farmhouses. In May, the countryside was green, fresh and awash in
colorful wildflowers. It reminded me of an illustration in a
children’s book with its perfect rounded hills,
the road winding its way over and around the hills into the
distance. There are also countless hilltop villages, each with
their ancient stone houses and narrow cobblestone streets. Even without any
particular destination in mind, it was a joy just exploring and
stopping whenever a good shot appeared.
Lost in all this sundrenched rustic bliss,
even the town of Corleone, of Godfather and real-life mafia
fame, didn’t seem such a sinister place to stop for lunch one
afternoon. There’s even a new Mafia museum to visit if one is
One place that I’d discovered doing online
research before our trip, was the Ruderi di Poggioreale. It
doesn’t seem to be mentioned in any of the guide books or maps
that I’ve purchased but is one of those places that for a
photographer in Sicily, is not to be
In 1968, the western part of
was hit by a large earthquake that destroyed a few towns in that
The town of
Poggioreale, founded in 1642,
was badly damaged in that 1968 quake
the entire surviving population was
eventually relocated to a newly constructed town nearby.
original town has been left just as it was, though now
uninhabited; a Sicilian ghost town. The crumbling streets and
buildings that remain are slowly being overgrown with weeds and
wildflowers with the passage of time.
My wife and I had the town completely to
ourselves for a sunny morning with just the birds and the buzzing
of the bees to accompany the sound of my camera shutter.... Magical.
Our next base for three nights was to be the
town of Ragusa, in the southeast. The drive across the island took
around five hours. Rounding the curve, the first view of the old
town of Ragusa Ibla, is jaw dropping as it suddenly
appears below. Shaped
like a crusty loaf of Italian bread nestled between green hills,
this honey colored jewel of rustic Baroque perfection completely
covers the hill it was built upon. It is overlooked by the
adjacent, newer town of Ragusa Superiore.
Like several other towns in the region,
was flattened by a massive earthquake in 1693. All the towns were
subsequently rebuilt in the decorative Baroque style of
architecture of the time which incorporates graceful curves,
elaborate ornamentation, carved animals, human figures and faces.
The best examples of this architectural style are preserved in the
towns of Ragusa Ibla, Noto and Modica, all of which are now World
Heritage listed sites.
was the perfect base while we explored its
medieval streets and piazzas and those of other nearby towns. This
area of Sicily
is definitely more touristed and
developed than the west of the island. With many elegant shops,
there is also no lack of choice for excellent food,
pastries and gelatos.
With limited nights to shoot, I burned off many
of those newly acquired calories scouting vantage points during
the day only to hike back up again at dusk to shoot the town as the
lights came on. In Ragusa
I worked a couple of different locations on two consecutive
evenings to get the views and panoramas I was after. Thankfully,
the Sicilian weather continued to be ideal.
On the coast, to the east of
Ragusa, lies the 3000 year old port city of
Siracusa and its main attraction, the island of Ortigia, our next stop.
by short bridges to Siracusa, historic Ortigia’s center is mostly
car-free and its narrow and atmospheric streets and marble piazzas
are a delight to explore.
Shops selling everything from
hand-painted ceramics, luxury jewelry, gourmet olive oil, and
exquisite Italian fashion, exist alongside crumbling ruins and
immaculately restored Baroque cathedrals.
Our journey next took us north towards the
largest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna.
Though we were headed to the town of Taormina,
also on the coast, we decided to follow a route inland,
circumnavigating the base of the volcano ... well ... just because
we could, never having driven all around the base of an active
volcano before. Etna, though regularly active, was restrained
despite the impertinence of our chosen route, trailing just a
narrow contrail of steam out to sea.
is one of Sicily’s most touristy
towns and though a steady stream of bus tours and cruise-ship
shore excursions filled the streets even during May, its
popularity is entirely understandable. The town’s location is
spectacular, nestled into the steep mountainside, with panoramic
views of Mount Etna in the
and the turquoise Mediterranean sparkling below. The
ancient Greeks must have also liked the location and left behind
the ideally situated Teatro Greco, a wonderfully preserved
classic amphitheatre carved into the hillside. Every seat enjoys
that same stunning view. The town’s bougainvillea-decked piazzas,
sophisticated pedestrian shopping streets and endless dining
opportunities were also truly a delight.
Our time was running out and we still had much
to see. After a couple of nights in Taormina we headed our car north to the town of Milazzo on the north east
Stopping for gas along the way, I couldn't resist a shot of
the eye catching gas station signage.
Milazzo is the jumping off point to catch
ferries to the Aeolean islands. The seven volcanic islands, the
best known being Vulcano, Lipari and
Stromboli, are each quite different.
We only had time
for one island though, so leaving our car behind, we caught the
hydrofoil to the island of Lipari
for a couple of days.
Most of the main town of Lipari is within
walking distance from the ferry dock and we were charmed with the
peaceful ambiance of the place as we pulled our wheeled bags along
the paving stones of the main street to our B & B. It definitely
reminded us of similar sized islands in
that we’d visited, but with perhaps a bit less whiteness.
Though our hydrofoil arrived at the newer port,
the older original harbor at the other end of the town was
definitely more attractive, with brightly painted fishing boats, a
couple of portside
churches, fishermen playing cards, and mending nets, and
restaurant tables with colorful tablecloths bordering the portside
At twilight, with the streetlamps just coming
on, and warm light spilling from the shop windows and restaurant
patios, the atmosphere was photographers’ gold. It was too bad we
only had a couple of nights to enjoy here as well.
Eventually, returning on the hydrofoil to
Milazzo we picked up our car and continued heading west along the
north coast. Our last destination before we returned to Palermo,
was the town of Cefalù, situated on a rocky cape and
overlooked by an imposing cliff face called La Rocca.
Our great stretch of good weather had ended
though and our arrival in Cefalù was stormy, wet and windswept.
The gloomy weather gave the labyrinth of medieval stone streets a
sense of abandonment much at odds with the town’s reputation as
one of Sicily’s
most popular beach towns.
Eventually the rain stopped and I grabbed my
to scout possibilities for shots of the storm-driven waves
crashing into the rocks below our room. As I struggled to keep my
footing on the slick rock, and
tried to minimize the salt spray on my
camera, the sun emerged from behind the clouds.
Within a few
minutes, the seaward face of the battered line of buildings lining
the shore to my left, were lit to perfection with honey colored
light. With the ominous black sky above and crashing waves to my
right, I had better than I’d hoped for. My work here was done.
Later that evening, shooting the opposite side
of town from the beautiful but deserted beach near sunset, the
gods rewarded me again with another beam of perfect light. It lasted
about a minute but that was all that I needed.
weather is just bad weather, but then sometimes you get lucky with
the gift of a fleeting perfect opportunity.
If you’re not ready,
Finally, on to Palermo. First colonized by
the Phoenicians some time around 700 BC,
is the capital city of
and is so densely populated that it seems bigger than its
population of around 700,000. With such a long history of serial
conquest by each new dynasty coming to power in the Mediterranean,
tourism board once had an advertising slogan of “Come and Invade
Us - Everyone Else Has”.
Driving in Palermo
is not for the faint hearted. Traffic lanes,
red lights and stop signs are more of a recommendation than an observed rule. Parking spaces
are almost nonexistent and everyone parks accordingly. Arriving
unscathed at our hotel, I was happy to pay the exorbitant parking
rate there just to be rid of the car for the duration of our stay.
The old, historic center of
is divided up into four quadrants, each with its own distinctive
market hidden within the maze of narrow streets and a mélange of
crumbling architectural magnificence. I was reminded of old
as I wandered the run-down alleyways with their patina of
civilization, culture, and decay. Some of the centuries-old
buildings damaged by bombs dropped during World War II
Market stalls overflow with shiny fish, perfect
mountains of fresh tomatoes, and purple eggplants.
hoarsely shout their wares, and the smells of spices, cheeses
or baked goods waft from doorways. For a photographer, it’s a
target-rich environment every direction you turn.
Even discounting the subliminal mafia issue,
invisible to a tourist, most guidebooks advise that the streets
and markets of Palermo
are places to be cautious, with a high incidence of petty crime.
As I was concentrating on my shooting in one end of the Capo
market, this was in the back of my mind as I became aware that I
was being observed by a slightly sinister looking middle-aged man.
I caught my wife’s eye and we moved further on down the street
where I continued to shoot.
I realized that the same man
was once again close by. Suddenly he caught my eye and smiled,
pointing to an ancient open door opposite where I stood. It
appeared to be the inauspicious entrance to a church. I could see
people inside so stepped through the door into one of the most
ornate church interiors that I’d ever seen. Every square inch was
covered with frescos, statues and inlay. It’s a door that I would
have walked right by except for my photography-fan friend, and my
faith in my fellow humans was renewed
Wandering another of the Capo’s narrow streets, I passed by a
dusty open door and the corner of my eye glimpsed an
antique-looking guitar hanging on a wall. I was now getting tired
so continued on by, but then,
being a guitar collector myself, couldn't
resist going back for just one more look. It turned out to be a
tailor shop, and the tailor sat in a chair in the middle of the
room hemming a pair of pants by hand. I nodded and smiled, as did
The walls of the shop were hung with a wonderful collection of
guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. The
almost too good to be true,
reminding me of a Norman Rockwell painting. I asked if I could
take a picture. I didn’t speak Italian and the
tailor didn’t speak English but it was
quickly established that we both loved guitars.
Using my 14-24 lens I was able to fill my frame with his
magnificent room. He continued to hem the pants as I shot.
That image is one of the favorites of my trip, and I’m glad that I
decided go back for a second look rather than
just continuing on back to the hotel.
was an unexpected delight - better than we’d hoped for. The people
were warm, the photographic opportunities were amazing and I have
a newfound passion for anchovies.
You should definitely invade Sicily....
before everyone else does.