Articles About Sicily
From time to time I am asked for my views and observations about subjects relating to travel in Sicily, and Sicily in general. Sometimes I initiate the conversation and submit articles that I think will add to the overall canon of information. Here is a growing list of my writing about Sicily, published in a variety of places. Thank you to each publisher and to my readers.
All Eyes are Pointing Due South to Sicily
By Karen La Rosa
As published on Times Of Sicily
April 11, 2016
Lampedusa’s famed quote, “If things are to remain the same they will have to change,” is still relevant today. To the keen eye, this is evident in an artistic renaissance happening in Sicily today. Once prized for its strategic position connecting disparate worlds and culture, that advantage changed long ago. In recent history, Sicily and its art scene have occupied a seat largely under the radar, but is now showing signs of transformation.
Sicily has always been revered for exceptional craftsmanship in mosaics, ceramics, traditional cart design, textiles, sculpture, architecture, painting, and even food and wine, elevated to an art form on the Island. From Antonello da Messina, to Serpotta, to Caravaggio, to Guttuso, and with every new kingdom imparting its own fine artistic merits, The inspiration continues today in Palermo’s warren of old streets, in the historical Jewish and Arab quarters, as well as in Catania and Siracusa. Small, once deserted shops are re-opening, creating a vibrant SoHo feel. Run by both Sicilian and mainland young entrepreneurial artists and crafts people, many are incorporating traditional Sicilian designs into a re-imagined sensibility, reflecting modern culture and society. In yet other restored and innovative spaces, there is a burgeoning contemporary art scene, that in the last ten years functioned mostly underground, but today is working to establish itself on a broader playing field, hosting interesting shows at a number of intriguing spaces and galleries. For artists, the benefits of traveling abroad plus access to world-class galleries such as Francesco Pantaleone (Palermo) and Gianluca Collica (Catania); curators such as Daniela Bigi, Laura Barreca, and Giusi Diana; and a tightly knit community of artists, have played a significant role in challenging the insularity inherent in island culture. Exposure instigates new questions about preserving tradition and making new statements in art. The excitement created by these new currents are inspiring culture enthusiasts to visit Sicily more often.
Manifesta 12, an important biennale, has chosen Palermo as its site for 2018.
Marianne Bernstein is a seasoned curator of contemporary art projects and a visionary who is always pushing boundaries. She chose Sicily for the second phase of an international curatorial project titled Due South, centered on volcanic islands. The project melds art and interpretation on myriad levels, integrating Sicilian and American artists with local communities in fresh new ways. Part of Due South’s mission is to add to the vocabulary that describes a place so as to shake up pre-conceived notions with fresh interpretation. Due North, the first such project, took artists back and forth between Iceland and the US, to explore, immerse, and create. Three years of focused exploration, exchange, and individual artistic expression culminated in a well-attended and reviewed exhibition in Philadelphia that included installations, video, and prints.
Bernstein’s second installment, Due South is a rich and exciting creative exchange of 24 artists, between Sicily and the United States, but it is so much more than that. Sicily is central to multicultural history and art, a place steeped in tradition and mythology, and breathtaking beauty, worthy of Stendhal. Yet, on some levels it is choked by a perceived and static international reputation, a fixed idea whose time to change is upon us. Bernstein recognized boundaries to be challenged by examining how Sicily is viewed from both the inside and out.
The Due South initiative is as inspirational as it is exceptional. The participating artists work in diverse mediums. Since Due South commenced, nearly two years ago, artists have forged a web of friendships across the island, embracing cultural differences and artistic ideas, absorbing histories, the landscape, and the dichotomies of everyday life. Bernstein herself has been to Sicily 7 times already. She has fallen in love with the island, met with artists and curators, residents, workers, entrepreneurs, and farmers. She has explored the migrant issue, co-directing and producing the creation of a short documentary film about a young boy who came over alone on one of the boats. She has engaged many in a passionate conversation about how to represent everyday life in new ways; with history and tradition in mind. It is an ongoing, energizing dialogue.
In January 2017, the Delaware Contemporary museum will present a large Due South exhibition for an exciting three-month run. The gallery spaces are large and airy. They will host events aimed at highlighting the rich Sicilian cultural experience and hope to engage many in experiencing this enigmatic island through fresh eyes. Later that year, and in conjunction with the Manifesta biennale, the museum will host a private tour to Sicily for a limited number of participants, offering behind the scenes visits with artists and other unique opportunities.
The opportunities for growth and understanding through a project like Due South are many. Its overt mission of creating works of art from informed and fresh perspectives creates awareness and draws attention to Sicily, affording its artists international recognition, and the underlying message of embracing the outside world and inviting it back in for a visit, can only result in growth and opportunity for Sicily as a whole.
The Delaware Contemporary is seeking corporate and individual sponsorship in support of the Due South exhibit and events. All contributions are tax-deductible and will be recognized in all exhibit related materials. Please contact Karen La Rosa, project consultant, for more information at
For more information: duesouth2016.com
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Travel Agents Reveal the
Hottest Emerging Destinations
By Lisa Iannucci
Excerpt from Travel Pulse “Travel Agents Reveal the Hottest Emerging Destinations”
April 11, 2016
If you’ve been vacationing to the same old places year after year after year, it’s time for a break. How about someplace new?
Karen La Rosa, owner of La Rosa Works, Sicily Travel and Tourism says that Sicily, Italy hasn’t always had the best reputation for being tourist-friendly, but it has changed tremendously over the last few years.
“Sicily was always a popular destination among the literati and even the glitterati, in part because it was not so crowded with regular tourists,” she explained. “Fast forward to today, and a summertime walk down the Taormina streets that D.H. Lawrence and de Maupassant waxed poetic about, will have you hearing many different languages and standing in line for that mouthwatering gelato. (Sicily’s) wine has found its place on the international map. Hotels are refining themselves while maintaining their historic beauty. Spas and wellness hotels are growing in number.”
La Rosa said that Sicily is adapting, in part due to the hard-working and determined young population. “Over time, Sicily has been overtaken by more than 15 different empires,” she said. “Today, the empire of tourism is approaching the coastlines.”
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Why We Go To Sicily
By Karen La Rosa
As published on Insider Voyages’ “Magical Sicily”
February 25, 2016
Sicily! Unless you have already feasted your eyes on this still well-kept secret island, you have little idea of what awaits you on a journey. Come with me…It is mesmerizing, sensual, and like home. Read on and see what you are likely to experience as you explore.
Sicily is often referred to as the island north of Africa, with its stark and majestic cliffs, imposing against the piercing blue sky. Its hot and dusty roads are almost from another time. In the quiet of the hills, outcrops of cactus plants bear abundant fruit in bright reds and yellows, and pale yellow flowers cover the earth’s floor. Mount Etna provides an Eden of fertility. The verdant hills are dotted with almond trees. Their delicate pink blossoms swirl and cascade to the ground in the warm spring wind from Africa.
The landscape boasts windmills to dry the salt, orchards full of olives, fragrant lemons, an active volcano, and acres of vineyards. Flocks of sheep meander and small lizards scamper about, while church towers dot the skyline of every small town. Fennel fronds mark the path on which you walk, and the sweet jasmine wafts through the air, filling your lungs and grabbing hold of your heart. The intense display of color from the ubiquitous bougainvillea simply stuns the eyes. Rolling hills, tiny villages, giddily ornate architecture, mesmerizing sunsets, and the smell of cooking pasta greet you at every turn.
A historically coveted island, perched in the middle of the sea, that itself alternates between emerald green and cornflower blue, basks under no fewer than 300 days of sunshine a year. Colonized and fought over throughout its history, Sicily is the melting pot defined, and over the centuries each group left its mark. Agriculture, food, landscape, architecture, and the arts all reflect the wonderfully disparate cultures that once called Sicily home.
This is Sicily: almost dizzying to a traveller, a surprise and a revelation, a land of contrasts. It is full of the best of many things–ruins, mosaics, food and wine–but also the reality of a land that has suffered over time. Days can be exciting and full, viewing one sight after another, or tranquil, drinking wine leisurely on the slopes of Mount Etna, sitting on a sandy beach, or watching birds in a nature reserve. Each choice offers a rich and unforgettable experience. Food and wine are the feature of most days, and no matter your travel style, Sicilian cuisine is a hallmark of simplicity and freshness, mouthwatering family recipes, lovingly prepared. Sicilians love their island and love to share it with appreciative travelers.
Mythology and mystery carry stories of hardship and glory from the ancient past, casting a magic spell over anyone that sets foot on Sicily’s soil. Its appeal is unparalleled to the likes of poets and painters, photographers and journalists. No one returns from Sicily unmoved. It is its own continent, an idea, a land full of passion and heart. Come. See for yourself.
Let us take you there!
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The Past Is Full Of Life At Sicily’s Villa Isidoro De Cordova In Aspra
By Karen La Rosa
Published in The Times of Sicily, February 19. 2016
In June of this past year, the doors to an incredible history were opened to the public for the first time at Villa Isidoro da Cordova. Originally built in 1648 and apparently named for the convent of St. Isidore that was next door, it has been lived in continuously until 2011, with the death of the last resident, the Marchioness Maria Teresa De Cordova. Situated on land that was part of the Barony of Solunto from 1392, this villa is without question unique and exceptional. It offers visitors the ability to see a place that represents not just one particular historical period, but as reflected in its structure, decorated rooms, and treasure trove of contents, an evolution of time and history.
Nestled between Bagheria and Aspra, just 14 kilometers outside of Palermo, this area had been the summer retreat for the Palermitani nobility in the 17th and 18th centuries. Under the Spanish rule of the time, the society was markedly divided between the rich, who in many cases had been gifted land and title, and the struggling poor. The short move to the fertile east, cooled by sea breezes, and much less crowded, afforded the wealthy the opportunity to enjoy themselves and their elevated status, in good company.
There are, sadly few remaining of these beautiful Baroque-styled villas. Some are still in private hands and some have fallen into disrepair. A handful is open to the public today. Among them, Villa Isidoro is perhaps the most spectacular for its good condition and its breadth of contents, spanning some 350 years. The original property included a huge swath of land. A tree-lined driveway spanned all the way to the sea, so long that a stopping point was erected where carriages could be met by a servant and a picnic lunch. A climb to the top offered expansive and lovely views. Visible upon reaching the main gate to the villa, a monumental staircase with two sides and surrounding gardens, unfolded before their eyes.
The resident families, including Del Castillo, De Cordova, Mastrilli and Paterno, were all related by this or that marriage, and their family crests or coats of arms can be spotted in the ornately decorated ‘trompe l’oeil’ ceilings of the main entertaining rooms, which greet the visitor upon entering. Over the years, and in 1753 and 1849, in particular, the families made additions and renovations to the estate. It is a maze of connecting rooms, from the east wing to the west, decorated in gilt wood, marble, mirrors and ceramics, with high ceilings, ornate stucco moldings, and huge doors opening to terraces and views. The walls are covered with family portraits and photos, including the family tree. Floral paintings in the Dutch and French rococo style, by artists such as Jusepe de Ribera, and Pietro Novelli, cover the door transoms and panels. The remaining wall coverings and frescoes echo the spirit of the grandeur of the environment.
Framed documents and archives from various periods can be seen in the library and the Hall of Arms. A fabulous array of coins, cameras, books, toys, and stationery items that span the years, are intermingled for all to see. Having been occupied until not long ago, the private rooms and their furnishings reflect an early 20th century feel. Personal items on display include adult and baby clothing from long ago to vintage styles, hats, luggage and gloves, all in a wonderful state of preservation. The villa, now museum, has a full display of items and much more in its stored collection.
Originally built as a farm, Villa Isidoro specialized in the production of the lemons and olives for which the area is famous, and grapes and peaches as well. Farming continued for well over 300 years and the produce was sold in Europe. An olive press was constructed to produce olive oil in the early 1800s. In 2011 the villa was given over to an entrepreneur, Domenico Angileri, who promised to transform it into a museum and cultural center and prepare it for the future. Today there is ongoing research and effort to restore the property, the gardens, the orchards, olive press and outer buildings to the beauty they once had.
To help with the enormous restoration projects and expenses, the space is often available to the public for special events. It has already held an important fashion industry show, a vintage car show with cars all along the driveway, and many concerts. I am thrilled that they catered their first lunch for a group tour, with Sicilian musicians, for a group I brought to the villa. And it was a memorable highlight of the tour.
The Villa is the most important cultural asset of Aspra. It should be on your must see list. If you are in Palermo, it is just a short ride by car, bus or train. While you are there, visit also another one time summer residence, Villa Palagonia, renowned for the wild statuary that sits atop its circular walls.
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Travel Agents Reveal Early 2016’s Hottest Destinations
Travel Agents Reveal Early 2016’s Hottest Destinations, Travel Pulse, March 08, 2016
The wine industry is making the Italian isle of Sicily a must-see destination right now. “Sicily is benefiting from a wine industry that is flourishing and there is a renaissance occurring on Mount Etna and in the other regions on the island,” said Karen LaRosa, owner of La RosaWorks Sicily Travel and Tourism.
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UNCORK MOUNT ETNA!
A Wine, Food and Cultural tour to the beating heart of Sicily
by Karen La Rosa
White Almond - Private Sicily, January 2016
There are many ways to discover Sicily but one of the best ways is to do a Wine and Food Tour.
La RosaWorks is a company that customizes tours to Sicily highlighting its history, food, wine and culture creating memories in a fun, educational and tasty way.
New York based Karen La Rosa visited Sicily a number of years ago and fell in love with the island firstly by discovering it by bike.
Karen created La RosaWorks to share her passion for Sicily and everything that she has learned and experienced on her travels.
She is a wonder to talk to as we both share a great love for Sicily (we could probably talk about all things Sicilian for hours).
This Spring 2016 you can join Karen on a Sicilian adventure ‘Uncork Mount Etna!’ a unique experience discovering our beautiful volcano through its wine, food and culture.
Now I will pass you over to Karen who has written this wonderful guest post for us, enjoy;
To refer to a ‘wine and food’ tour in Sicily is almost redundant in a place where wine IS food. It is consumed with every meal and elicits as much passion as the next plate of Caponata
Wine has been part of Sicily’s agricultural and cultural heritage for millennia, storied and woven into myth and religion. It has spanned the ages from the Greeks and Romans, to the feudal systems of the nobles, a spark of entrepreneurial spirit in the late 1800’s, followed by mass emigration and a decimation of workers, to a new renaissance on the slopes of Etna and beyond. It has been a roller coaster ride of successes and failures for an industry that has perennially done battle with politics, regulations, taxation, and perception. While the type of bulk wine made in the past is still enjoyed at the family table today, often coming in unmarked bottles from local cooperatives or a family member, time, evolution, education, support, promotion, and even some regulation, has given rise to a growing interest in the refined wine segment in Sicily, the wines that compete for space in the best restaurants and stores worldwide.
I do not enjoy pairing the words wine and industry. While it requires the most industrious of efforts to bring a grape from farm to table, the process and the result is really more about art, each glass the result of painstaking effort, imagination and constant reckoning with Mother Nature. Nowhere in Italy is this struggle more pronounced than in Sicily. And this is why we go: to experience the incredible. On this tour, we will go to the stunning region around Mount Etna, the island’s beating heart, so full of stunning vistas, history, and nature. It is the exploding wine scene on the volcano that is driving tourism and sales these days. It is both fascinating and exciting to see it up close.
The best way to learn about this subject is to go and see for yourself. Go to the vineyards, some old, some new, but all basking in the Sicilian sun and tenderly loved. Meet the people, some who have been there for generations, and some newcomers, from points north. Taste the wines paired with the food, the unbeatably fresh, simple, and delicious Sicilian food. On Etna there are indigenous grapes, packed with the mineralogy of the sandy and lava ash soil, and yet each winery produces a wine uniquely their own. Like when a docent explains a painting, you will gain appreciation for every aspect of the wine, its production and heart. On this tour, you will have the opportunity to experience this in the most intimate way. What makes it even more special is the historical connection remarked upon by a wine-seller friend, Peter Yi, “The people of that sacked city on the hill drank wines from the same vineyards we drink from today, a living connection to an abstract past.’
Join us May 30th - June 6th, 2016 to immerse yourself in an experience for the senses. As the Greek writer Horace said “No poem was ever written about water.”
We will visit Catania, Taormina, and the Etna towns in private transportation and stay at two 4 star hotels. We will eat exceptionally well, and sample many delicious wines.
You will be embraced by Etna’s generosity and learn much about Sicily’s layered and storied history. Sicily is an idea and Mount Etna is like its own continent on the island. If it sounds magical and mysterious, that’s because it is!
To read the details about this tour, please visit: http://larosaworks.com/2016-sicily-spring-wine-and-food-tour.php
To join the mail list for updates, please click here: http://eepurl.com/bMuCUj
And, please visit me on Facebook for a daily dose of Sicily: https://www.facebook.com/LaRosaWorksSicily/?ref=hl
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Best Places to Travel in 2016
Travel & Leisure Magazine, December 2015
Whether it’s the fifth-century B.C. Greek ruins, the architecture of Arab-Norman Palermo (a newly appointed UNESCO World Heritage site), or the seemingly endless miles of dreamy coastlines, travelers have never been able to get enough of Sicily. And these days, “wine is one of the things bringing tourism to Sicily,” says Karen La Rosa, the founder of La RosaWorks, a boutique tour operator specializing in the island. She recommends exploring State Road 120 (SS120) around Mount Etna—the latest region of Sicily that’s attracting wine connoisseurs—where the soil is enriched with minerals from hardened lava. A treasure trove of wineries, both big and small, can be found there, encircling the volcanic slopes. Most notably, Tasca d’Almerita, a celebrated, centuries-old family label, has opened a vineyard named Tascante that produces two varietals made from the Nerello Mascalese grape (a gentler alternative to Sicily's richer-tasting, more famous native Nero d'Avola). This summer, the all-women-run Tenuta di Fessina will unveil a new boutique hotel, with a spa housed in a restored palmento (stone cellar used for crushing grapes). What better way to end a day of tastings than with a thermal bath in an old wine tank? —Alex Schechter
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Through Their Words and My Eyes
siciliangodmother.com, July 20, 2015
So great is my love for Sicily, that I turned it into a business. I can share the magic of my Sicily with people who want to travel, learn, and enjoy the richness of such a beautiful island.
Sicily has certainly bewitched many before me, though, and it goes way beyond the oft quoted Goethe. The consistency of the love-fest messages is clear over time, but their individual eloquence is such a joy to read. Their words, my eyes.
The 18th century French painter Jean Houel left for Sicily in May, 1776. He intended to stay a short time but never left for 4 years.
“I was enchanted… the limpidity of the sky, the restless splendor of the sun, the beauty of the countryside, a certain excitement of the fantasy…which brought to mind the time when in the fields one encountered the divine.”
Who would want to leave?
There is scholarly debate about whether or not Shakespeare visited Sicily or whether perhaps he was Sicilian. He seemed to write about Sicily with such knowledge.
“The climate’s delicate; the air most sweet.
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.”
Almost without fail, my clients come back from Sicily always saying the same thing…”I had no idea!”
In The Leopard, that classic and quintessential Sicilian novel, Lampedusa evoked so fabulously the expansive southwest area where my heritage lies.
”aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.”
In 1788 the art historian Jean-Dominique Vivant Denon, wrote Voyage en Sicilie. The first director of the Louvre Museum and Napolean’s Art Minister traveled quite a bit for the time, but he wrote a book about Sicily.
“All that nature has of great, all it has of terrible, can be compared to Etna and Etna cannot be compared to anything.”
Another luminous French author was also moved to write a book. Entitled Sicily, Guy de Maupassant said:
“Those men, those of former times, had soul and eyes that in no way resemble ours, and in their veins, along with their blood, flowed something that has disappeared: love and admiration for the Beautiful.”
Fast forward to the 20th century and the keen observations of Leonardo Sciascia. How could you not love a book entitled The Wine Dark Sea?
“All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination.”
And indeed it is.
Perhaps today we are a little less eloquent, but still the message is the same!
Sicily is not only where my heritage lies, but also a big piece of my heart.
One thing is absolutely true, and D.H. Lawrence said it best,
“And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.”
To learn more about La RosaWorks tours to Sicily, or for help in planning your tour, contact me, and let me show you Sicily through my eyes.
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The Truth about Safe Travels in Sicily
Pink Pangea (pingpangea.com), July 2, 2015
Travel & Tourism
In the middle of the Mediterranean lies that staggeringly beautiful and exotic island, Sicily, and yet travelers are sometimes hesitant to visit. South of mainland Italy and just north of Africa, it has besotted kings, tyrants, emirs, and myriad rulers for millennia.
Today, those that do visit understand their obsession very quickly. The fertile soil, the access to trade routes in every direction, and her naturally defensive topography is enviable to any ruler. Her beauty, described again and again by literati from every era, still inspires. It has been a long history of transience and instability in many ways, but also of exceptional invention and discovery, richness and importance. The legacies heaped upon Sicily’s shores by all manner of invading peoples, have created such an exceptionally fascinating place. So why the reluctance to visit?
The only Godfathers a traveler is likely to encounter in Sicily are those in the souvenir shops adorning coffee mugs and aprons.
Following the unification of Italy in 1861, a different kind of ruler evolved, known as the Mafia. Seizing opportunity laid bare by poverty and lack of governance, it grew, flourished, and strengthened after WWII, when the situation presented itself again. Sicily experienced great, great, poverty that led to huge emigration.
Many people in the US can attribute their heritage to what was once called The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, referring to the South of Italy. The stories of hardship and fear came with them. Much later, and to the delight of organized crime, Hollywood became the opportunist, releasing films that glamorized and mythologized the Mafia. They had never looked so good. Generations watched and believed. They ascribed truth to these films. Consequently, travelers had reasons to avoid Sicily. But what is the truth?
No one would deny the history of Sicily, or the existence of organized crime, but it was never glamorous or mythological. Corruption is unfortunately around us everywhere. It is often a hidden activity, though, that has very little, if anything, to do with tourism. Present day ‘wars’ are fought in courtrooms and banks. The only Godfathers a traveler is likely to encounter in Sicily are those in the souvenir shops adorning coffee mugs and aprons (please do not buy them).
There are riveting books that chronicle the evolution of the Mafia without confusing the myth and reality, and like most conquerors that have their heyday and their denouement; the time seems nigh for the Mafia. Dedication and determination over the last 30 years is proving successful in taming and dispersing what remains of the ‘organization.’ More and more Sicilians are becoming active participants in the pursuit of peace and prosperity. Resilient people, this is not the first time they have had to wrest control from invaders.
“Sicily is currently in the throes of transforming the curse of the Mafia into a blessing. Properties which have been confiscated near the legendary town of Corleone have been planted with vines,” says Matthew Stelzig, a writer for the international wine publication ProWein. The reality is finally changing.
Francesca Planeta, of the wine famous family, recently noted that, “The first thing people associate with Sicily is food, quality food. Crime was at the end of the list,” she said, referring to recent research in the US. And a recent Huffington Post article recently wrote that “In recent years tourism has been on the increase, and the high quality wines have certainly helped to make the region better known on the world stage.” Enotourism is done very well in Sicily, the largest producer of organic wine in Italy. The welcome mat is open for tourists and tourists are arriving.
What does this mean? What can you expect to experience in Sicily?
It is good to know that according to statistics, Sicily has a lower crime rate for violent, sexual, and even petty crime than many other parts of Europe and all of Eastern Europe. It does not rank high on the global crime statistic lists, but nonetheless, prudence is always wise.
Sicily’s two largest cities have a wealth of sights to see, markets to experience, and great food, but they are the two where some caution is advised. Spending time in Palermo and Catania requires using the same attentiveness you would use in any urban setting: do not flash money and jewelry, do not walk down deserted streets, especially at night, and always pay attention to who and what is around you.
For women alone, you can expect heightened attention from the male population, but it is typically in the form of kissing noises, stares, whistles, or shouted Italian phrases.
Petty crime is the most realistic threat today and pickpocketing, for example, can happen in big crowds, markets, on a crowded bus, and at festivals. Even in and around the crowded airport or train station, it is a good idea to be alert. A seemingly European phenomenon is thieves on scooters snatching purses. Avoid this by walking away from the curb and wearing a cross-body bag, rather than a shoulder bag. What you wear can immediately identify you as a tourist. Locals do not generally wear bright, colorful patterns and big, white sneakers. If you do not draw attention to yourself, you will not stand out.
For women alone, you can expect heightened attention from the male population, but it is typically in the form of kissing noises, stares, whistles, or shouted Italian phrases. Generally they are harmless and should be ignored. Dressing smartly helps, and again, stay away from otherwise deserted areas. If you need to use your phone to call for help, in Italy the emergency number is 112.
I was raised in NYC and these are directives that ring true even today. These are travel rules to live by wherever you may roam, and Sicily in this regard is, thankfully, not what it has been cracked up to be.
Misconceptions have often made potential tourists apprehensive about visiting Sicily and cheated them from an experience of a lifetime. It is about time we move beyond and dispel what is often more myth than reality. Sometimes a little information and clarification goes a long way to making a traveler more at ease.
You can read more about Sicily, its history and its magic, here.
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The people of Sicily are warm and very generous all over the island.
The Long Finish for Sicilian Wines
Food & Wine
“No poem was ever written by a drinker of water.” - Horace
Italy was unified in 1861. I’m not here to debate the success of that event, but we did recently celebrate the 150th anniversary of what we now know as Italy. The realization of the unified states into one country, with the immense gifts that each has to offer, historically, artistically, and, of course, agriculturally, yields a powerhouse of a land for which tourists and foodies can’t seem to get enough. 63% of Italy’s economy is tourism. Happily, this also bodes well for the wine industry.
I do not enjoy pairing the words wine and industry. While it requires the most industrious of efforts to bring a grape from farm to table, the process and the result is really more about art, each glass the result of painstaking effort, imagination and constant reckoning with Mother Nature. Nowhere in Italy is this struggle more pronounced than in Sicily.
Wine has been part of Sicily’s agricultural and cultural heritage for millennia, storied and woven into myth and religion. It has spanned the ages from the Greeks and Romans, to the feudal systems of the nobles, a spark of entrepreneurial spirit in the late 1800’s, followed by mass emigration and a decimation of workers, to a new renaissance on the slopes of Etna and beyond. It has been a roller coaster ride of successes and failures for Sicily’s wine industry that has perennially done battle with politics, regulations, taxation, and perception.
Rustic table wines, or bulk ‘sfuso’ wine, and fortified wines, were the predominant wines in Sicily for ages. Drunk locally, these heavy and high alcoholic wines were eventually recognized and found a market in France, offering body, depth and color to French wines after their devastating bout with the phylloxera disease. Even wines in Northern Italy relied on Sicily’s heartier wine to refine their own. While bulk wine is still enjoyed at the family table today, often coming in unmarked bottles from local cooperatives, time and evolution, education, support, promotion, and even some regulation, has given rise to a growing interest in the refined wine segment in Sicily, the wines that compete for space in the best restaurants and stores worldwide. Since the 1970’s, the US interest in consuming Italian wines has been steadily on the rise. Smaller wine production is resulting in wine of a much higher quality than ever in its history and it is now often associated with words like elegant, meditative, structured, and refined.
For what is emerging today, credit must be given to some of the historically important families in the Sicilian wine industry, among them: Tasca, Planeta, Alliata, Rallo, De Bartoli, Florio, Occhipinti, Nicolosi and Benanti, names we are still familiar with today. These families took chances, risked fortunes, and represented the smaller families in the business. They worked to improve production of Sicily’s indigenous red and white grapes and took a leap importing other types of grapes to blend. Typically, the results of their efforts and experiments took years to assess. But as the fruits of their labors settle, we are seeing incredible results today. What has been secured for Sicilian wine producers, is respect for the wines and an exploding and appreciative following. The families like Franchetti and de Grazia have brought techniques and innovation to Etna. Relative newcomers like Cornelissen from Belgium, young siblings like Loredana and Eugenio Vivera or descendants like the daughters Ariana Occhipinti and Claudia Alliata, are putting their ambitious mark on the industry. There are even some women oenologists, a rarity in the traditionally male world. This new generation of wine makers is young, educated, savvy and dynamic and will continue the work of those before them.
All of this translates to an exciting market for wine lovers and consumers. Recently, New York City hosted its annual wine events, major conferences that offer the opportunities for the trade to taste, meet producers, and make importing and distribution connections. They are wonderful events hosted by organizations such as Slow Food, the Italian Wine and Food Institute, and the Italian Trade Commission. There are talks and seminars. This year, Vino 2015 focused on the wines of Southern Italy. Hitherto an overlooked region, it has now become a focus of attention. Gala 30 celebrated 30 years of an explosive market in Italian wines overall. Imagine that in 2001 Italy surpassed dominant France in both quantity of imports and total value. Today, Italy dominates the US market in every category, value, selection, variety and quantity.
Today, Sicily still produces a lot of wine and it is statistically the most important wine growing and producing region in Italy, although ironically, the Sicilians themselves drink the least of the Italians. Two thirds of the grapes in production are white varieties, mostly Catarratto and Inzolia, and one third red, Nero d’Avola, of course. The heaviest production is in the Western part of the island, with the other regions, the Southeast and Etna following. There are 23 DOC zones in Sicily, and one DOCG, each with a distinct identity! The unique characteristics determined by this very varied terroir in Sicily, make these wines extremely interesting and desirable. Coastal and salty air, elevation and cool winds, minerality thanks to a volcano, 300 annual days of sunshine, dry heat in summer, winter rains, and the hot and dry Sirocco winds from Africa, all contribute to every vintage, and that’s before the process of vinification begins. The producers, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, even micro-enterprises, create art in a bottle. Every glass is a reflection of intense creativity, mental calculation, physical labor, collaboration of passionate minds, blind faith in nature, and, never to be underestimated, investment. The ancient poet Horace had it right: “No poem was ever written by a drinker of water.”
The best way to learn about this subject is to go. Go to the vineyards, meet the people, and taste the wines. Like a docent explaining a painting, you will gain appreciation for every aspect of the wine and its production. What makes it even more special was said well by a friend, Peter Yi, “The people of that sacked city on the hill drank wines from the same vineyards we drink from today, a living connection to an abstract past.”
When I am in Sicily, I explore wineries continually, enjoying their history, stories, passion, and personality. I bring tours and send travelers for fun and illuminating afternoons. When I am in NYC, I taste, and I read. I ask my favorite stores to bring more Sicilian wines to their shelves.
What you should look for if you want to taste at home:
The indigenous grapes are used for wines both in purezza and in blends. The most popular red wine grape is Nero d’Avola. It is grown in the Western and Southern parts of the island and the wines are easily available in stores. It can be robust and full of minerals, and sometimes, on the high alcoholic scale. The other red grapes you might find or can ask for are, Nerello Mascalese, and Nerello Cappuccio from Etna, Perricone or Pignatello from the area of Trapani, and Frappato from the Southeast. Each one is different and produces very interesting wines.
White varieties you can ask for include Cattaratto, Inzolia, Grillo and Grecanico, all from the Northwestern areas. Carricante is the most important white grape on Etna and owing to the recent fascination with Etna wines; it is now well planted in a relatively small area and makes up 98% of the white grapes grown on the slopes. It can be lower in alcohol than other whites and full of rich minerals. Every wine designated as Etna Bianco must contain 60% of this grape.
Dessert wines are the backbone of Sicily’s historic production. England’s John Woodhouse was the first to recognize potential in 1773 and he produced the first fortified Marsala wine. Today, this wine, which was often thought of for cooking, has some very fine producers and it is enjoyed as an aperitif.
Passito comes from the Zibbibo grape. Zibbibo means raisin in Arabic, a reference to the Arab custom of sun drying the grapes. This grape was recently awarded UNESCO status, an unusual award for UNESCO, but another feather in the Sicilian cap. Mostly, this grape grows on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, which is closer to Africa than Europe.
Malvasia delle Lipari is another sweet wine derived from increased sugars in the sun drying grapes. Its grape comes from the Aeolian Island of Lipari, but Malvasia is grown abundantly on the island of Salina, as well.
Passito of a slightly different type is made in Noto, South of Siracusa, not far from Avola..
A very interesting and entertaining read about wine in Sicily is the book Palmento written by Roberto Camuto. It will teach you a lot about Sicily, the wine and the personalities that pepper the business. It will make you absolutely yearn for your next glass of Nero. For a more historically detailed and well-researched book, The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto and Frances di Savino is an excellent read.