We spent four of our last six days in Italy touring the island of Sicily by car. As we visited in the spring, the landscape everywhere was overflowing with wildflowers, which was absolutely delightful. We mainly stuck to the coastline, and visited Erice, Agrigento, Catania, Taormina and Palermo. I’m still not sure what to make of it, as it is a study in contrasts. Beauty alongside shabbiness, gorgeous ancient ruins overlooking the sea next to supremely tacky souvenir shops, soaring Baroque buildings covered with grime and volcanic ash, luscious rolling green hills farmed for grapes, olives and citrus fruits and ugly industrial sites, charming little villages and sad, depressing little hamlets, and big cities full of gems like the biggest, most amazing outdoor food market I have ever seen in Palermo, hard up against widespread evidence of poverty, unemployment and indifference. The pandemic certainly cannot have helped.

Catania, in particular, caused us some serious cognitive dissonance. It sits between the island’s active volcano, Mt. Etna (the darling of crossword constructors everywhere), and the sea, which makes for a lovely tableau. Up close, however, the city is full of signs of abject neglect, like rows of failed businesses, graffiti on every surface (of the vandalism variety, not street art) and unpicked-up trash. We rolled up to the B&B I had booked, took one look at the frankly menacing surroundings, and immediately whipped out our phones to find somewhere else to stay. We ended up a a really nice place, but I was kind of afraid to leave it after dark.

The food was likewise a mixed bag. If you love octopus, squid and gnarly fish heads on your plate, this is the place for you. One cannot swing a dead cat in Sicily without hitting a plate full of chopped up octopus tentacles. We tried to go to half a dozen places with good reviews online, but they had been boarded up and abandoned. Some of them were right on beaches, with stunning views and big patios, but they were dilapidated, depressing and closed. In a misguided attempt to have something familiar, we tried a hamburger place in Catania. Steve ordered a chili cheeseburger and was served a huge piece of what we believe was fried chicken on a plate-sized bun, with some sort of barbecue-esque sauce that they apparently thought was chili. I ordered a hamburger, which was terribly overcooked and had a meat to bread ratio of about 1:20. In my experience, the Italians serve their meats raw or at least rare, so this was quite a departure. On the other hand, Sicily had some of the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen. You can get pomegranate and orange juice fresh-squeezed to order at the market in Palermo. The vegetables there were abundant, brightly colored and huge. The breakfasts at our hotels were pretty good, and I had some excellent spaghetti with clams in Erice.

Sicily is full of history, with archaeological evidence of inhabitants of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Germanic, Byzantine, Arab and Norman origin. The Greek ruins in the Valley of the Temples are spectacular. There is an old building in Palermo that has been a monastery, Islamic mosque and Catholic church.

Of course, Sicily is also well-known as the birthplace of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, which may explain why I felt sort of uneasy. The symbol of Sicily, which appears on its flag, really freaks me out. It’s a Medusa head, with a triskeles, or three legs, coming out of it, in addition to the snakes. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was both fascinated and sort of horrified by the whole state of affairs there. I’m glad we visited, and once was enough.

I cannot close this post without mentioning that Sicily is also the home of the fictional ancestors of Anthony Marantino, one of the greatest characters from Sex & the City. When introduced to Carrie’s friend, Stanford, in the episode where Carrie becomes fashion road-kill, he and Stanford have the following exchange:

Stanford (trying to make polite conversation): Marantino. Is that Italian?

Anthony (icily): Sicilian.

Stanford (trying again): Is that different?

Anthony (sneeringly): Yeah.

He’s not lying. It is different.