Sicilian beachers are among the most beautiful in the world.

Interviews About Sicily

“Sicily exudes a special kind of magic which inspires people to fall in love with it. A subtle kind of intoxication which overwhelms its visitors, through its sunshine, its food, history, the people, its timeless quality and pace of life, often visitors become hopelessly enamored of this island. With those of Sicilian heritage the connection is always more intense, there is something visceral which pulls you back and makes you fit comfortably into the arms of your own personal genetic history.”

- Rochelle Del Borrello

Published

 

Sicily

By Karen La Rosa

As published on Be Right Back
February 27, 2017

Can you give us a brief history of Sicily?

No. There is nothing brief about the history of Sicily! The island is smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, which means that it has always been the enviable jewel in the crown for anyone who could capture it. There were native people on Sicily, but in around 800 BC arrived the Phoenicians. Then followed Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Norman, French, Spanish, and then unification with the mainland came in 1861, making the country we now call Italy. People don’t realize that Italy has only been a country for 150 years. Truth be told, it is a land of regions, and Sicily is one of 20.

What makes Sicily a great & different destination compared to other Italian cities?

Many things, but to boil it down, it is diversity.

Each of the conquering populations stayed for a time on the island, some much longer than others, and some lived together with great tolerance for differences. All of them left things behind. In Sicily, there are the world’s best Greek ruins, and among the best Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The Arab-Norman architecture was recently awarded UNESCO status in and around Sicily’s capital, Palermo, and on the eastern side of the island, a very distinctive Sicilian Baroque is visible everywhere, having sprouted following a devastating earthquake in 1693. The Arabs brought the ceramics we now associate with Sicily. The Spanish added refinements. The Spanish built Palazzi and many are still owned by the ‘noble’ families. Visiting the public ones is like entering a completely different world. Sicily’s classic and fabulous novel, “The Leopard” talks about the time of transition from an island owned and ruled by nobility to a more modern society.

Apart from the visible testimony to the past is the food. It is said that some of Italy’s best is prepared in Sicily and you must experience it to believe it. Just imagine new groups of people arriving to Sicily’s shores to live. What do they do? They bring what they love and need to live; olives, grapes, lemons, sugar, eggplants and tomatoes, to name a few. Greeks brought olives for oil and the Romans perfected how to press it. Arabs were the first who made pasta, and Sicilians still eat cous cous. Arabs dried grapes, (zibibbo is the Arab word) and we use that process now to make sweet dessert wines. It goes on like this and it is the stuff of books. Suffice it to say that if you look at any Sicilian menu, you will see that it reflects a very complex culinary history in which everything is prepared with the freshest, most seasonal items. Simplicity and time is the secret. A revolution and celebration in your mouth all at once.

What are your favorite things to do in Sicily?

I have so many, included in which is simply zipping around in a small car, seeing places off the beaten path and adoring the scenery. Sicily was viewed as Paradise by the Arabs and any drive will offer breathtaking vistas, from the starkness of the rock formations jutting up into the piercing blue sky, to rolling terrain, and of course a volcano, the largest and still active lady responsible for abundant fertility. It is an island and so the sea has huge importance in addition to great beauty. People ski on Mount Etna and see the water below. It’s amazing. More particularly I love visiting wineries and learning about wine history. I also love heading to a farm in the early morning and eating freshly made, warm ricotta cheese. It’s the stuff of dreams.

What are some cultural differences or customs that are surprising about Sicily?

When you arrive in Sicily there is an immediate sensation that you are in a very different place, not like the rest of Italy or any other Western place that I’ve been. Much has been discussed about the island mentality, the fatalism that comes from being conquered again and again, but there is also something else. Here is where Slow Food began. It speaks to an appreciation of nature and life. In Sicily, the hours between 1:00 and 4:00 are still observed as sacred family time. Lunch is the main meal, prepared after the morning market visits. If you walk through town, it will fill your head with the smells of pasta cooking and chatter, sounds and smells carried by all the fluttering laundry overhead. Families eat together. They walk together afterword and greet neighbors. The men converge in the piazza to discuss. The word urgent does not exist in their lexicon. What could be more important than time to share around the table?

Tourism is on the rise in Sicily. The G7 meetings will take place in Taormina this May. Palermo was named Culture Capital of Italy for 2018, and the important European biennale Manifesta chose Palermo as host for next year. In addition to all the attention coming to Sicily, the island is slowly and finally shedding some of the negative impressions that have plagued it for some 100 years. A trip to Sicily will be an eye opener. This I can guarantee.

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Mount Etna’s Alcantara Gorge

Mount Etna’s Alcantara Gorge

Driving near Montelepre

Driving near Montelepre

Picking fava beans near Aci Castello

Church bells in Taormina

Church bells in Taormina

Approaching dusk on the island of Lipari

Approaching dusk on the island of Lipari

Karen La Rosa: An Interview About Sicily

By Rochelle Del Borrello

As published on Sicily Inside & Out
November 23, 2016

Sicily exudes a special kind of magic which inspires people to fall in love with it. A subtle kind of intoxication which overwhelms its visitors, through its sunshine, its food, history, the people, its timeless quality and pace of life, often visitors become hopelessly enamored of this island.

With those of Sicilian heritage the connection is always more intense, there is something visceral which pulls you back and makes you fit comfortably into the arms of your own personal genetic history

Over the years I have met many people who have made valuable connections to Sicily and one of the most passionate stories has to be that of Karen La Rosa who has turned her love for Sicily into her work.

She writes on her web page La RosaWorks about how she once took a bike riding tour of Sicily and how:

At one point, riding alone and completely surrounded by olives, I dismounted and sank my hands deep into the warm earth. It was rocky but soft, and tenderly cared for. It was an incredible moment and I began to have a real sense of place. In that pile of earth was Sicilian history, generations of olive growing, labor and obstacles. Rich indeed.

Later Karen started her own unique travel company which is dedicated to sharing Sicily and Sicilian culture with the world.

I was happy to hear from Karen La Rosa who happily answered my questions about her experiences and work in Sicily.

Tell us about La Rosa Works, how did it come about,
what kind of events do you organise and what’s your philosophy about Sicily.

Sicily is in my blood and it has fascinated me since I was little. I asked so many questions about my heritage as a child, and learned a lot, from conversation to what was on the table. It was on my first trip to Sicily that I recognized myself as belonging to that place. I felt a close bond, and each time I am there, that bond is reinforced, it grows deeper.

When our three boys were at the end of their school years, I decided to start a business to share what I love. The island is so under-visited by Americans that I thought I should do what I could to encourage visiting and experiencing the magic. It’s not the same place it was one hundred years ago! I organize tours for small and large groups. Some I accompany, others go on their own following my arrangements. I’ve done theme tours as well for artists and yoga lovers, for example, foodies and wine lovers, historians and music groups. It’s all fun and gratifying.

I like to be involved in events because it is a fun way to reach many people who may not have yet made the commitment to travel to Sicily. I have organized and collaborated on Sicilian themed dinners and wine tastings, on a large exhibit that incorporated many of the cultural aspects of Sicily, even exhibited some of my Sicily photos. I have created installations and displays.

Presently, I am involved in a major art initiative called Due South, involving more than 30 artists from Sicily and the US, including most recently, Letizia Battaglia, the famous Mafia photojournalist. You can read about the project on my website, here.

I am the Sicily consultant, working on press, sponsorship and tours for museum supporters and art collectors. Over the course of the 3-month Delaware Contemporary museum exhibit, which will show the result of 3 years of artists’ work focused on Sicily, we will also offer events that spotlight many aspects of Sicily life and history. I’m excited and honored to be a part of this.

Why should someone come to visit Sicily on their vacation?

The reasons to come visit are many. The island has something for everyone. It is a wonderful place to unplug and relax by the sea, or play golf, or hike. But if food and wine is your passion, you can find fabulous food, in Michelin starred restaurants, or at small home style trattorie, chefs and cooking classes, too, and you can visit some of Italy’s best wineries, each one of which is unique. The historical canvas is so wide in Sicily, and each of the people’s who visited Sicily over the centuries left their mark, certainly in the food. At every turn, their richness greets you – Greek ruins, Roman mosaics, Byzantine mosaics, Arab ceramics and inlaid, woodwork ceilings, Norman architecture, and Spanish palazzi. The destructive forces of Mount Etna, were the catalyst for building some truly fanciful and ornate Baroque structures. This is just a little nod to what is there. It is truly spectacular to see Sicily up close! Its history surrounds you in the most wonderfully overwhelming way.

What is the best thing to do in each season? Could you break it down for us, what should we be doing in a visit in the summer/fall/winter and spring?

Another tough question! It is tough because there are many things to talk about. Sicily is a semi-arid climate but within that there are many microclimates. Harvest begins in late summer in certain places, and continues all the way into November on Mount Etna! Since so much of Sicily is still agricultural, that means a lot of hustle, bustle and fun. The freshness and intense flavors found in the markets all year round is special and at times, there are harvest festivals all over the island. They celebrate crops such as chestnuts or artichokes, prickly pear or grapes. They are always great community events.

Then come the Christmas holidays, full of food and celebration. If you go in winter, you may not need a jacket in the cities, but go into the hill towns and the wind will make you shiver. Church bells ring everywhere.

In February and March, the greening once again begins, and the earth is covered in a blanket of yellow flowers with the gentle pink and white almond blossoms dotting the landscape. Oranges and lemons are everywhere. Agrigento hosts the Almond Blossom festival, a big cultural celebration with music and dancing.

The biggest winter event is in Catania, in the first week of February, when the Feast of Sant’Agata commands everyone’s heart. It is a 3-day event that is unparalleled in its spectacle. Religious and traditional, it is an opportunity of a lifetime to witness.

In the north, Acireale hosts one of Italy’s best Carnevale celebrations, and it continues for a month of costumes and children, music and fun.

In some years, these three events coincide and what an exceptional opportunity is that!

I think spring is the most visually exceptional, with flowers in every color imaginable and in their most intense version, visible everywhere. Sicilians are people who love to let the wild grow and cultivate the rest. Natural beauty abounds.

Summer can be warm in Sicily, but there are many hills where the breezes blow cooler air and the sea bathes you in the deepest azure blue waters. Sicily boasts more than 300 days a year of sunshine. I think the sky and the sea are rivals for their blueness.

And then, by the end of the summer, we begin again the harvest. Grapes drip from vines everywhere. The air is redolent of wine. Olives are big and juicy, leaving your hands with a subtle smell and oily film. There is nothing quite like participating in these harvests.

That’s a long way of saying that I love all the seasons in Sicily, but Spring and Fall especially.

What is your own personal favorite site to visit?

I honestly cannot say that I have one. I love the streets of Palermo and Catania, too, where I feel so at home! I have had a couple of Stendhal moments, visiting both the Charioteer statue on Mozia and the Dancing Satyr in Mazara del Vallo. Both experiences left me speechless. They are jaw dropping works of art, so advanced for their time. I am ever amazed that Sicily is not as well visited as the other areas of Italy.

What is your favorite taste of Sicily?

Wine and olive oil. Eggplant. Blood oranges. Pistachios. Almonds. Fennel. Ricotta….I could go on.

What is your favorite off the beaten track destination or experience?

For me, eating freshly made and warm ricotta cheese is like a religious experience. It is simply heaven and wherever I am, I seek out the sheep farmer.

I also love visiting wineries and I have visited many. To me, a winery reflects nature, a philosophy, and a history. It is a testament to perseverance and hard work, to passion, and perhaps a little craziness. Each is unique except for one thing: they all work with grapes. I find that meeting the wine growers and makers is endlessly fascinating. They appreciate my enthusiasm and love to share. It’s a great day.

Sicily is filled with works of art, if you can choose one emblematic piece of art from La Trincaria which would it be?

You’re going to laugh, but I really love the statue in the Piazza Duomo in Catania – the Fontana dell’Amenano. It has so much going on that represents Sicily. The boy is youth, strong, with a beautiful sculpted body. He bears a cornucopia, representing Sicily’s agricultural gifts. The two on their knees are older and carry the weight, pouring the rushing water into the river, the great river that once flowed through the city and was submerged by an eruption, the water representing to me the fast passage of time. The statue is big, graceful and proud, and yet it sits at the entrance to the fish market rather than in the center of a big piazza. Something about it says Sicily to me.

What is your personal connection to Sicily? Why have you decided to set up a business based on the island?

It is my heritage, and my passion. When my husband first went to Sicily, he said “I will never refer to you as Italian again.”

How would you describe Sicily in one sentence.

On my website I have a whole page dedicated to quotes I’ve collected about Sicily – words written by great writers, poets, historians and philosophers, from across the centuries. See the quotes page here.

What could I say that they haven’t?

Sicily is in my heart, plain and simple. The island fills me with happiness and I try to give back.

Thanks so much to Karen La Rosa for taking the time to answer my questions.

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Fontana dell’Amenano statue in Catania’s
Piazza Duomo

Taormina

The volcanic hills around Randazzo

In late winter, while skiers enjoy Mount Etna up above, the greening of the island begins

Near Isola Bella in Taormina

Dancing Satyr, Mazara del Vallo

Taormina has many antique shops and
high-quality stores

Sicily has so many markets selling everything from the freshest produce and fish, to sweets, nuts, and oil

The making ricotta cheese is a daily ritual, and so delicious to experience

Prickly pear fruit,referred to as fichi d'India or ficurinia

Spring is a glorious time to be in Sicily. The colors are a feast for the eyes.

Relief map of Sicily and surrounding waters

A Conversation with… Karen La Rosa

Gray Is The New Blond, January 2016

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my passions and one of those is people. Thanks to God for placing people in my life to get me through difficult times, teach me things I don't know while making life fun and interesting. I need people way more than they need me. Know that each of you reading this blog plays a role in this!

I will be interviewing some amazing people through out the year that have inspired me and I think will inspire you too.

Meet Karen La Rosa: I just met Karen last year through my daughter in NYC. Karen welcomed us into her New York City home, immediately treating us like family over a delicious meal and evening together. We fell in love with her family and feel as though we have known one another for years!

Karen has navigated beautifully through her various seasons of life, continuing to find passion and joy. I think you will agree and want to join me on one of her trips to Sicily.

GITNB: What is the biggest challenge and/or greatest joy you’ve experienced getting out of your box?

Karen: The lion’s share of my time for 21+ years was devoted to our three boys. I worked in non-profit, but they were my joy, my heart, and where my attention rested. I wrestled with how best to take advantage of the next life chapter once they were out of the house, and worried about it, I admit, but ultimately had faith that life would evolve and I’d figure it out. We spend so much time making something happen or preventing something from happening. Sometimes we need a break, and I think that’s when life happens! It wasn’t long after that I started my business of arranging tours to Sicily.

GITNB: Where do you find inspiration? What brings you joy?

Karen: I love to learn new things. I love to explore. I love to meet people who have devoted their lives to something, do it well, and don’t mind sharing their knowledge and experience. I love to share and I it makes me feel good to take care of people. Apart from my family, my greatest sources of joy are my passions: Sicily, photography, learning about wine, and singing. I’ve merged a few of those passions to create an outstanding wine and food tour planned for next May. I’m writing these words from a hotel room on Mount Etna and I am so excited for the great people and activities I’ve included on the tour.  Have a look! http://larosaworks.com/2016-sicily-spring-wine-and-food-tour.php

GITNB: What do you do to stay active and not let aging be a negative?

Karen: I try not to think about age and just do what I want and need to do. Staying active in NYC is not too hard. I walk everywhere and often try to go through the parks, which I find restorative. I go to theater regularly, cook a lot, and take care of the people I love. I enjoyed singing with the New York Choral Society for 8 years, but with trips to Sicily in Fall and Spring, it isn’t possible to attend rehearsals. Still, the thought of singing all those concerts in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, behind world-class opera singers, always makes me happy.

GITNB: What’s one of your favorite books? Favorite people that inspired you?

Karen: I read a book called “The Wild Braid” a number of years ago. It was written by a Poet Laureate, Stanley Kunitz, in his 100th year. He was also a gardener and with the help of another writer, he penned his musings about life and gardening, which, ultimately is all about life. It was pretty wonderful and I have given it to many people. The other book I love is called “Beyond The Sky and the Earth” which is a travelogue story of a Canadian woman who gave up her life in Canada and moved to Bhutan to teach English. It was inspiring, eye opening, and transporting. I think of it still when I am traveling solo around Sicily, exploring, meeting strangers, and negotiating the language. The book really enriched me.

GITNB: What are you most proud of?

Karen: From a business point of view, I am proud of my reputation. All the time, effort, and study I have put into making my tours unique and memorable has paid off.  People think of me as a specialist, a resource, and a great host! I am humbled, truly humbled by all the thank you notes. It is what makes me really happy.

People always compliment my website, too, www.larosaworks.com and my FB posts. I try to post things that are engaging, beautiful, and enticing! I want my internet presence to encourage people to take a trip to Sicily

GITNB: What advice would you give to women of any age?

Karen: This is a tough one. Lives are complicated and full, and circumstances are diverse. Energy ebbs and flows. Everyone has to negotiate her own path and decide when the time is right to make a change, start something new or different. It’s hard to say just do this or that. Stay healthy. That’s the main thing. It’s the best way to avoid sickness. Seriously. Walk, eat well, try to sleep enough. When the body is taken care of, the mind can run free. Then, when you come across something that moves you, don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourself. It feels so good. The more you do, the more you can, and will, do and on the way you’ll no doubt discover wonderful things about yourself.

The tour is on for May! How much fun would that be together! She is pulling together interested parties now so her if you have an interest.

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A content group of travelers, enjoying a tour of Sicily with Karen.

Serene Mt. Etna, Sicily

Sicily is rich in vibrant color.

Sicily is so rich in color.

Karen and her husband out for a wine tasting event in New York City.

Out for a wine tasting event in the City.

Assisting with a wine harvest on Mount Etna.

Helping out with the wine harvest on Mount Etna.

Statues of the Spanish Kings in Palermo, Sicily.

Hanging around with Spanish Kings in Palermo

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily with Karen La Rosa

www.somethinginherramblings.com, July 24, 2015

Karen La Rosa has turned her passion for Sicily into a profession with La Rosa Works, a boutique tour company for the Italian island. In this week’s Women Who Travel Solo, Karen shares advice for a solo trip to Sicily.

How did you get your start traveling?

I started traveling as a teen, with hard earned money. Though I traveled mostly with my sister, I’ve never minded being in my own company. I lived in England for a year and spent all my spare time driving to the small picturesque Cotswold towns, to Scotland and Wales. I have biked in Beijing, stayed in a garret in Amsterdam, and visited many places in Europe. After a long awaited trip to Sicily, my ancestral homeland, I began visiting twice annually and exploring every corner, and mostly solo. I couldn’t get enough.

One advantage of being alone is that interactions are with locals by default. The opportunity for adventure is actually greater than when you are not traveling alone. Some of my stories are included on my website, powerful, meaningful and delightful adventures.

Tell us about your first trip as a solo traveler in Sicily.

After seeing Sicily for the first time, I stood on a balcony under a full moon and opposite a street bearing the name La Rosa, and promised myself to make the island part of my life. I’ve kept my promise and more. Sicily has two main airports. The first trip I flew into Catania, on the east coast. I stayed in an apartment that someone had recommended, shopped in the market, went to the opera, and took day trips to nearby towns. The highlight was spending 3 days experiencing the Feast of Sant’Agata, Catania’s patron saint. The feast wass one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed: pagan, historic, religious, inclusive, emotional, colorful, and thrilling. I’ve been back three times, each time intentionally alone with my camera.

What is it about Sicily that touches your spirit?

In my opinion, there exists a collective soulfulness among Sicilians, complex and very endearing. The people of Sicily have endured so much over the millennia. Because of their enviable location in the Mediterranean and natural and agricultural riches, they are ever wary of and vulnerable to the next ‘invader’ and yet, they are a most generous and warm people. Even in the face of the current European economic crisis, they are perseverant, resilient, and proud. There is always room at their table, both literally and figuratively. Additionally, I am constantly moved that every Sicilian I have ever met feels such a profound love for and attachment to their land.

What are your favorite things to do in Sicily?

Driving in Sicily intimidated me at first, but I now love to move around in the car. The scenery is breathtaking and outside of the main cities, I have never found the roads crowded. The island is hilly and sometimes stark against piercing blue skies, surrounded by the bluest waters, vibrant floral displays, grazing sheep, and farms. In the car, I am at liberty to stop wherever I desire to soak it all up. Sicily is a place best experienced by doing. Embedded in the architecture, archeology, city and landscape, is a very rich story.

The story goes deep and by tasting what the land produces and how dishes are prepared, you begin to understand Sicily’s evolution. I enjoy visiting wineries. It is a wonderful way to engage with locals, understand history, and learn about wine and food. I have studied wine and appreciate that wine is an art. The heart and soul of its makers are in every glass and even a taste can give you some insight. How exciting to be living through Sicily’s wine renaissance! Tasting freshly made and warm ricotta cheese at a farm is almost a religious experience. Visiting the lively markets is a photographer’s dream, especially the ones in Palermo and Catania. The list goes on. Mount Etna as the sun is setting? The back roads of Marsala? The wild wind and ruins at Selinunte? The very Arab flavored Mazara del Vallo? You see I have many favorites all over the island.

What makes Sicily a good destination for solo travelers?

There are three main tourist cities, Palermo, Catania, and Siracusa, from which many other places can be reached by the excellent bus system. You can see a lot this way, and quite inexpensively. The people in Sicily are very warm and generous. Generally, an effort to communicate or show appreciation results in an exchange. Hotel owners are very helpful too, offering suggestions and directions for visiting their area. In hotels and B&Bs, they usually include breakfast at which a solo traveler can meet others, but I have also experienced congeniality in restaurants, have started meals alone and ended up in the company of others. In Sicily you can enjoy a small town, go to the beach, hike the hills or even a volcano. There is quite a varied list of things to do.

What advice do you have for women who are traveling alone to Sicily?

In the cities, solo travelers and women in particular should use common sense and be alert of their surroundings as they would in any big city. Dark alleys, late night strolls, dressing inappropriately or like a tourist, and wearing big jewelry is generally not a good idea. Men in Italy like to admire women with whistles and comments. They should be ignored. Petty crime is a problem in many places worldwide and whenever you are in crowded places, from the airport to a festival or even the market, take care to mind your purse. I travel with minimal things in my purse. If I don’t need it, I leave it at home. If you drive, do not park in the city with exposed luggage. The rule of thumb is don’t invite trouble. Courtesy and polite behavior go a long way. Stow the electronics so you can be in the moment.

Tell us about your tourism services with La Rosa Works.

With La Rosa Works, I arrange tours to visit Sicily my way. My resources are deep and I can create a trip that will enable assortments of people, a group from an organization, a family, friends, or those with a particular interest, to experience Sicily, not just to see it. I also host my own tours to see the island in unique ways. I like to work very closely with my groups to give them richness, education, fun, and lasting memories. My website is a good place to begin exploring.

Presently I am hosting a Draw and Tour trip and a Yoga trip for this coming fall. Both are detailed on the website. On these tours, we combine sightseeing with the activity, and always include food and wine. They are a very special way to learn, see and experience Sicily. Next spring I will host wine and food tours.

How did you turn your passion for Sicily into a profession?

Slowly, after traveling around, doing an enormous amount of reading and research, and building connections, I investigated how I could put my passion to work. More research and time, some investment, a great family and web designer, some networking and here I am.

Do you have anything else to add to inspire women solo travelers?

Yes, I would say do not hesitate. Traveling is perhaps the best education, the most enriching and rewarding activity. Use money wisely so you can embark on many journeys and satisfy your curiosities more often. Traveling with friends and family is wonderful, but exploring on your own can make you feel liberated, give you time to think, to learn about yourself, and be mindful. It is an especially wonderful way to take a deep breath from a busy life. And, remember, joining a group as a solo traveler is also a great way to have fun and meet people, offering both alone time and group time.

About Karen La Rosa

Karen loves to bike, walk, and be outdoors, and the world of wine is a big part of her life. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Women Who Travel Solo: Solo Trip to Sicily

 

Turning Her Passion for Sicily into Her Profession: A Conversation with Karen La Rosa

www.pinkpangea.com, June 5, 2015

I have always been fascinated by women business owners, especially when the business stems from a passion. After being introduced by a mutual friend, Karen La Rosa and I met last week in NYC and sat outside of The Bean coffee shop while we enjoyed the long awaited sunshine. I picked her brain about how she got the courage to get open La RosaWorks, a boutique company that customizes tours to Sicily and plans events that highlight Sicily‘s rich culture, traditions, history, food, and wine. Not to my surprise, I left the meeting incredible inspired. If you’re thinking about starting a travel-related business, grab a pen and paper and get ready to take some notes! Karen offers great advice for budding entrepreneurs throughout this interview.

Tell us about yourself! What do you do when you’re not leading trips to Sicily? Where do you live?

I am a born and bred New Yorker who is grateful everyday to live in this spectacular city. I tend to be a woman of contrasts, though, and when I am in Sicily, I love the farms, the plants and flowers, the silence of the morning disturbed only by the cacophony of birds and hens. It is a wonderful place to re-set and re-gain perspective, to play with my camera and write a little. It is slow living at its best.

At home, I am always involved in so many things. I sing beautiful music in wonderful venues with the New York Choral Society, frequent off-Broadway theater, and recently, I finished a course in grape growing and wine production, a second passion after Sicily. I have been attending interesting trade events and meeting great people.

Together with my husband, I have three boys and two in-laws, and my husband and I are the family entertainers. I love to cook and to create social, relaxed gatherings. Every week we do Sunday family dinner, usually for 12 people or so, depending on stragglers, and we often host friends for dinners. Sometimes we host wine tastings which are a lot of fun. I belong to a Self-Employed Women’s group, called SEW. We meet to help each other, brainstorm, and support each other. And, I walk everywhere. I have a full life, that now includes FB posting and Tweeting, constant research about news, events, and off-the-beaten-path things to do in Sicily. Sicily is where you can find me for generally three weeks in the spring and fall.

When did you fall in love with the Sicily? Would you tell us about your first trip there?

My fascination began as a child. My grandparents spoke Sicilian when they didn’t want us to understand, but besides that, they were immigrants who wanted to immediately embrace America. Maria became Mary, Giovanni became John. They moved forward and I recall very little talk about what was left behind in Sicily. It was a hard place when they all left. I looked at pictures all the time. I wondered who they were, these ancestors. It is inexplicable, but I just felt connected to that heritage. I felt like it defined me.

On my first trip, I was alone on a bicycle not far from my ancestral town, riding through groves of olives. I stepped off the bike and couldn’t resist thrusting my hands into the soft, dark, dirt. It was an amazingly emotional moment. I had the land in my hands and it felt so welcoming. It was a defining moment and immediately made me start thinking about ways to stay connected. The contrast of the dark hills against the piercing blue sky, the air fragrant with jasmine, the fennel that grew along the side of the road, intensely colored bougainvillea everywhere and the sea, home to mythology and conquerors, left me awestruck. The people I met smiled and told me it was in my blood. I fell in love hard.

How did you get the idea to create La RosaWorks?

After a number of return trips and spending time with a friend who is a guide, I saw a lot and met many people. I travelled alone quite a bit, too, by bus until I felt comfortable enough to zip around in a car. I loved it. I love to share and so, I began helping people set up their trips. That was the beginning. The NY Choral Society travels bi-annually and as I was on the travel committee, we chose Sicily for the then upcoming trip. I arranged a tour for 130 people on which we sang 3 concerts and experienced a couple of unique evenings.

It went off without a hitch and people are still talking about the night I had a small town cook for us along a path that wound its way through the narrow streets. There was incredible food, spontaneous dancing and singing, and the love fest culminated with Italy winning the European Cup semi-finals. I couldn’t have asked for more. After this tour, I knew I could do it for intimate groups and individuals and my imagination took off.

Would you tell our community a bit about La RosaWorks?

I want to do it my way. I love working with the curious, engaged, traveler. I am very hands on with my clients and try to prepare them for their visit with articles and suggestions for reading and film. I try to open their eyes so they can understand what they see. Sicily is such a complex place that even a brief outline of history is helpful.

The island was conquered by just about everyone you can think of. It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, strategically perfect, absolutely fertile, with splendid vistas at every turn. I want people to experience the island, to live it for a week or so, to feel like they have learned something and then take the memory home. Since only about 10% of the people who go to Italy from the US go to Sicily, most people shake their heads and say “I had no idea…”. I love that.

I like experiential travel. When you are engaged in an activity you love, like when I was riding my bicycle from Palermo to Agrigento, you see a place in a different way. I am doing another Art Tour this fall because I believe one never truly sees anything until you try to draw it. It’s quite an eye opener! Drawing enables you to become intimate with the place on a very high level.

This fall I am doing another Yoga Tour, as well. Why? When you start the day off practicing mindfulness, relaxing, and just being in the moment, there is no better pre-condition for absorbing your environment. It’s lovely, really.

The other aspect of La RosaWorks is promotion. Through events and supporting things Sicilian, I try to make people aware of Sicily, develop an interest, and consider traveling to this magical island.

What was the hardest part about making it happen?

It all happened sort of naturally. There were frustrations, for sure, but nothing major. I have a really great web designer who got me to articulate my passion and very good resources in Sicily who applauded my desire and efforts. Time has always been my nemesis. There are never enough hours in the day to do everything I want. I have not needed to market since I started. My business has all come to me through word of mouth, but now I want to be more public, and that has required being on a learning curve for which I have sadly, little patience. Having said that, the effort has enabled me to meet some wonderful people, bloggers, people in the travel and wine industry. That part is fun.

Let me be clear, it does take some courage to do this, to invest yourself so thoroughly into an idea, to keep going even when this or that might not pan out. On the days that seem the most frustrating, my testimonials, for which I am most grateful, remind me that I’m doing ok.

Do you have any advice for Pink Pangea readers who might be interested in creating a similar business?

Network and learn all you can from others. Read a lot. Read what others do and use that to help you refine your own mission. There is a lot of competition in the travel business. Ask yourself what will make you different. How can you do things better or more efficiently? Listen to the clients – it’s their vacation and you have been entrusted with valuable time. Be responsive.

What’s new at La RosaWorks this year?

Wine. I have always taken most of my tours to wineries in Sicily. It is a fabulous way to learn about the land and an activity that has occupied the Sicilians since the Greeks. In fact, I love this quote by Thucydides from the 5th century BC: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” Or what Horace said: “No poem was ever written about a drinker of water.”

Wine is an important a part of life in Sicily, which is largely agricultural inside the coast. To talk to the winemakers (brimming with passion, by default) and walk among gorgeous vineyards that have been, in some cases planted since the 1600s, is a real window into the life and culture. The people love to share their passion and their wine, that, owing to the recent Renaissance, is quite delicious.

Interestingly, Sicilians drink the least of all the Italians. I want to use my advanced knowledge and passion to concentrate more in the enotourism area. I’ve developed lovely relationships and would like to support them. Food and wine are the natural pair and I have many, many, places to take tours where they can learn, taste, and experience. I think I have as much fun as they do.

Do you have any advice for readers who absolutely love Sicily, but don’t get the chance to get out there often?

Read books and blogs and watch film. On my website, I have Learn About Sicily pages that list quotes, books, film, and traditional music. On the Link to Sicily page, there are links to blogs and other interesting organizations. Under A Taste of Sicily and Events and Articles are things I have written. On top of all that, eat and drink Sicilian! That works for me. (Suggestions on my website!)

What’s next for you?

I am looking towards doing more group tours as I feel like I can reach more people for the same amount of work. I would like to set up some educational exchanges, perhaps summer hands-on study sessions, with a friend who runs an art conservation organization that is doing groundbreaking work, and also an Italian language school. Study and touring is a way to give someone an exceptional experience. I’ve always been a proponent of education, continual growth and development. I would like to devote more time to promotional things and at the moment, I’d really like to get my taxes done.

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Her Passion for Sicily

 

Her Passion for Sicily

 

 
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