Discovering My Roots: Sicily, Italy

Image for post
Image for post

At my family’s home, we have a painting hung over the piano which I often stare at for long stretches of time while playing. The painting belonged to my great grandmother, or Nanny, as we refer to her as. We believe the painting is of her hometown, Cefalu, a small city on the island of Sicily. It has always been a dream in the back of my mind to visit the town, but I never really thought the day would come when I was stepping off the plane onto the same land walked by my ancestors for centuries.

As this semester I am studying abroad in Madrid, I have been trying to plan some traveling to various countries in Europe. One day, I pulled out my laptop and decided to look up flights to Sicily on Skyscanner. To my surprise, I discovered a 60 Euro roundtrip flight I could take to Sicily right after the end of my final exams. I jumped on the opportunity and bought the tickets that day. After some happy dancing in my room, I excitedly called my mom. She then reached out to our Italian family in Chicago to see if we had any relatives in Cefalu who I could stay with. We discovered I have a distant relative (my great grandmother’s brother’s son), who kindly agreed to let me stay at his home with his wife Jackie.

On May 4, I finally arrived and was immediately greeted by this beautiful view.

Image for post
Image for post

From the airport, I found the bus that would take me to Palermo Centrale train station. I showed the driver my ticket and as I walked to take a seat, he began rapidly yelling something in Italian to me. I had no idea what he was saying, and he was very surprised to find out that I didn’t speak Italian. I frantically showed him my ticket again, not knowing what was going on at all. He dismissed me, accepting that we weren’t going to get anywhere with this conversation, and I returned to my seat very confused.

After a beautiful ride through Palermo to the nearby train station, I arrived in the heart of Palermo. As my train to Cefalu would not arrive for another hour, I went from the train station to a tiny panini shop across the street. Crossing the streets in Palermo is basically like a live action game of Frogger. At the shop, I scanned the menu for any items I might recognize. Thankfully, Spanish and Italian are pretty close languages, so I was able to order an eggplant panini — which turned out to be just eggplant on bread. Again, the lady working the counter was surprised to find that I didn’t speak Italian. I managed to lug my bag back to the station and hopped on the train.

Image for post
Image for post

This turned out to be the most beautiful train ride of my life. Through my window, I could see the vast ocean with the bluest water imaginable. On the other side of the train were rolling hills and mountains spotted with small towns.

Image for post
Image for post

After an hour, the train took a turn, and the town of Cefalu came in sight. My jaw dropped as I saw the pale pink and orange houses stacked upon each other on a hill situated next to the sea.

Image for post
Image for post

(While this view was not visible from the train, this should give you an idea of the beauty of the town.)

Finally, I arrived in Cefalu station. As I walked out of the station, I saw a smiling man in a gray plaid suit with reddish hair. I immediately recognized the man to be my 83-year old uncle Gaetano from the pictures my mom had sent me from when he was younger. Gaetano and his wife Jackie were incredibly warm and welcoming, even though they had never met me. They lead me to their car, and we began to drive along the coast through the hills towards the small village of San Ambrogio.

Image for post
Image for post

The village is very small and quaint, lined with pale orange, pink and white houses. As we drove past some of the people on the street, Gaetano and Jackie stopped the car to wave hello. Everyone looked at the car as we passed them.

Image for post
Image for post

Arriving at their house, Gaetano navigated the car up their incredibly steep and winding driveway, requiring more than basic driving skills to navigate up. The car was nearly vertical.

After moving my stuff into my room, Jackie called me down for dinner. She brought out the food, which was chicken and fragrant rosemary potatoes. During dinner, Gaetano told me several stories about the entire family. His memory of the family is extensive ranging back to the 1800’s. He knows each person’s name, age, relations, marriages, divorces, children, location, and life story.

Image for post
Image for post

After I had plenty to eat, Jackie brought out various cheeses including their homemade bread with sesame, fresh ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, a dry Sicilian cheese with a salty taste, and a soft cheese. The fresh ricotta was the best I have ever tasted as was the parmesan. You can’t get this stuff in America. Then, they served their home grown oranges, apples, and a fruit called Nespoli, which is a juicy apricot-sized pale orange fruit with a very sweet taste.

After dinner, Gaetano and Jackie took me to Cefalu to see the town. As we drove, I saw the most incredible sunset in my life with the sun descending towards La Rocca, which literally translates to The Rock.

Image for post
Image for post

While walking through the cobblestone streets of Cefalu (some of the stones are originals from hundreds of years ago), Gaetano gently held my arm while enthusiastically describing the history of the town. Gaetano and Jackie knew most of the people in Cefalu and frequently stopped to say hello.

Image for post
Image for post

There used to be a prison in this alley where they transported the prisoners through by horse and carriage.

We passed by a very old chapel once owned by family related to me.

Image for post
Image for post

We then headed to Il Duomo, which Gaetano said was built in the 12th century. It was closed, so we weren’t able to go in to tour.

Image for post
Image for post

After I took a few photos, we headed to an area dating to the Medieval Ages where women used to wash their clothes. We called it a night and headed back to San Ambrogio.

Image for post
Image for post

DAY 2

The next day, I woke up early and was called up for breakfast at 9:15. They laid out a big mug of coffee for me served with Sicilian biscuit cookies for dipping. We watched the news, and Gaetano told me his plan for the day.

After breakfast, we headed towards the medieval town of Castlebuono. The hills surrounding us on the drive there were the most beautiful I have ever seen.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

We arrived in the town, and Gaetano enthusiastically took me to a very old castle. The castle was fairly small, and we toured through each floor. We went inside a beautifully ornate chapel, where a lady was giving a tour to English speakers. Gaetano listened for a bit, before saying she was taking too long, and we left to see another floor.

Image for post
Image for post

After touring the castle, Gaetano asked me, “Did you enjoy the castle? The answer is yes.”

Image for post
Image for post

If you have seen Cinema Paradiso, this is the school where Toto goes to. If you haven’t seen the film, it is a must watch!

We sat outside at a gelato place and got a coffee. I got a very foamy cappuccino, and the owner brought out some panettone free of charge with a sweet almond spread on top. The panettone was light and flaky and had the perfect amount of sweetness. Supposedly, the owner had made panettone for the pope and had many orders from famous people. After finishing our coffees, Gaetano took me right next door into a music club where the old locals go to play music together.

Image for post
Image for post

There were old photographs covering the walls of the club space. Some of the photos featured the original members of the club when they were younger. There was also a photo of Gaetano when he was 20 years old. He used to participate in a 10k in Castlebuono, and one year he ran it in 47 minutes, beating a man who later became a gold medalist at the Seoul Olympics. Gaetano promised to give his medal to anyone who could beat his record. To this day, nobody has.

Image for post
Image for post

We then ate lunch on a beautiful outdoor terrace. Gaetano and Jackie knew the owner of the restaurant, who apparently has three wives. Jackie said he is “crackers” if he gets any more wives. We were first served Caponata, which is an appetizer with tomatoes, olives, onions, celery, and capers, which we ate on top of the restaurant’s homemade bread. They also served a plate of cheese including fresh ricotta and Parmigiano Reggiano served with a glass of Prosecco. The main course was a huge plate of spaghetti with very fresh seafood served in an olive oil sauce. After we finished (I couldn’t eat the entire thing), we were served their homemade orange liqueur free of charge.

Image for post
Image for post

Afterward, we went to visit an old chapel, which had been restored. The frescos on the wall had crumbled, but you could still somewhat make out what the paintings were. Gaetano led me around the chapel, telling me about all of the artwork.

Image for post
Image for post

A Canadian couple seized the opportunity for a free tour in English and joined us, so they could learn about the history as well. We went to the basement of the chapel, where there were secret underground tunnels. These were used by the Christians, so they could safely enter the Church without being prosecuted under the Islam rule. The basement frescos were well preserved due to the cold temperature. They were painted in the 1500s before perspective was well done hence the flat looking faces.

Image for post
Image for post

We left Castelbuono for Pollina — a town built on top of a hill to avoid invaders. The entire town is uphill, unfortunately, but has beautiful views of the sea and of other villages in the hills.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Afterward, we headed back to San Ambrogio so Gaetano and Jackie could take a rest. I decided to head down to the San Ambrogio beach, where my great grandmother Nanny and her father used to frequently go. I sat on a large rock, while watching the ripples in the clear blue water.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

After a brutally uphill trek up to Gaetano’s home under the hot Sicilian sun, I arrived just in time for dinner.

Image for post
Image for post

Jackie fried up some anchovies, which I was a bit worried about after looking at the table and not seeing any backup options for dinner. To my surprise, they were actually really good, nothing near the fishy grossness I was expecting to enter my mouth. After I had eaten plenty, they tried to force me to eat more, but I could not physically fit in any more food. They kept insisting, and I forced myself to find space for a few more fish. They then served cheese and salad and fresh fruit. I had only been there for two days, and already I was looking a little too well fed.

After dinner, Gaetano drove me through San Ambrosio, where he showed me his garden near the ocean coast. The garden originally belonged to Nanny’s father who split the land into five chunks and gave it away to various relatives. Nobody was really utilizing the land, so Gaetano bought all five parts of the land. Many of the family members needed the money, and bringing ownership of the land under one person would make it easier to pass onto future generations. Gaetano grows pears, figs, oranges, apples, and all sorts of fruit on his land. Above the garden, we could see the house where Nanny grew up.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Gaetano’s uncle used to sit on these steps to play Mandolin while people in the village came to listen.

After, Gaetano drove up to the top of a steep hill, which he said was the best spot to watch the sunset from.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The sun fully set, and we headed back to the house where we joined Jackie upstairs to watch the evening news. While we were all gathered around the table, Gaetano took out some old photographs to show me my relatives. He also told some funny stories about the family. For example, a deceased relative’s ashes had been sent from America to San Ambrogio. However, the ashes weren’t labeled, so the family they were sent to had no idea what they were. Very unfortunately, they assumed the ashes were black pepper and sprinkled the ashes all over the pasta they served up for dinner. I don’t know at what point they realized they had eaten the ashes of their dead relative…

DAY 3

At 9:15, I joined Gaetano and Jackie for breakfast while we watched the morning news. Around 10, Gaetano and Jackie took me to the town of Termini. On our way there, Gaetano played the CD he recorded of his mandolin music, as we drove through the beautiful Sicilian countryside.

Image for post
Image for post

The town of Termini has around 30,000 inhabitants and is more lively than San Ambrogio. We first stopped to take a coffee at a place located right by the ocean. Then, we went to the town Cathedral dating back to the 15th or 16th century. Inside the church, we saw the body of St. Augustine, the patron saint of Termini, which they often take out to parade around the town.

Image for post
Image for post

We then headed to the Civic Museum. A lady named Sylvana gave Gaetano and me a private tour even though she only speaks Italian. We saw artifacts from ancient civilizations in Termini including well preserved painted vases, old coins, statues, and pieces of the original infrastructure. Many of the artifacts were Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Spanish.

Image for post
Image for post

We also saw old oil paintings including one gruesome one of a lady getting her boobs cut off by a man with a sword. Sylvana and I both cringed.

The museum building used to be a hospital and had crumbling, yet remaining, frescos on the walls. We went into an old chapel with glass patches on the floor where you could see through to old secret underground tunnels, also used for Christians to peacefully get into the church.

After the tour, Sylvana hugged me and kissed me on the cheeks at least 6 times. She enthusiastically asked if we could take a picture together.

Image for post
Image for post

We met Jackie afterward, and Gaetano remarked, “I think the museum lady was in love with Natalie.”

We left the town to find lunch because all of the stores close down between 1 and 4 PM. We went to eat at a restaurant inside a grocery store, where I ordered lasagna, which turned out to be amazing. Afterward, even though I was beyond stuffed, Gaetano and Jackie tried to get me to fit in more food.

After lunch, we drove to Himera, a Greek battle site from 600–400 BC where 100,000 people had died. We then visited a destroyed Greek Temple. The nearby museum was closed, so we decided to return to San Ambrogio.

Image for post
Image for post

After 5, Gaetano and Jackie took me back out again.

Image for post
Image for post

We headed upwards to the ancient Greek city of Alesa. Even though the museum at Alesa was technically closed, the employees let us into the museum. We took a brief walk through where you could see ancient artifacts including statues in good shape and an old wine press.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Then we walked through the ancient site where you could see the intact stones of an old road.

Image for post
Image for post

We saw an old temple/Agora with statues in niches of the remaining temple wall. The stone we walked on was original.

Image for post
Image for post

We then walked a bit farther to what used to be ancient houses.

Image for post
Image for post

Afterwards, we drove back to Tusa, and Gaetano took us to a contemporary art room.

Image for post
Image for post

There was lots of quirky and imaginative art around, including a killer whale lamp, a chair shaped like a hand, and a mat made out of tires shaped like a crocodile.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Gaetano explained to me how I should appreciate all forms of art because art should have the liberation to take the shape of whatever the artist imagines art to be as it is an output of expression.

We then left, and I finally got to eat some Italian Sicilian pizza!

Image for post
Image for post

This pizza could have served four people!

DAY 4

After breakfast, Gaetano took me to the San Ambrogio church to meet the family. I don’t know the relations of everyone, but in some way or another, everyone was related to me. Although they all only speak Italian, they were incredibly warm and I kissed everyone on the cheeks as Gaetano instructed me to do. I went inside the Church where Nanny used to go every Sunday.

On our way back to the house, we tried to see if I could meet my great grandfather’s sister, Maria, who is currently in her nineties. When we got to her home, she was sitting outside confused at who I was. Gaetano explained to her how I was related to her, and she got incredibly excited. She took my hand into hers, and even tried to stand up, but we told her not to. I kissed her on both cheeks and took a picture with her. She had the warmest eyes. She touched my curls and again took my hand into hers. As we were leaving, she stood up to give me two kisses.

Image for post
Image for post

Before we left, an incredibly attractive guy came out of the house. He was very tall, young looking, and very built. He had dark eyes and dark hair. And then I found out from Gaetano that he is my uncle…I’m glad I don’t live in this village, or I would never find anyone to marry because everyone seems to either be my cousin or uncle.

We then left to go back to Himera, the ancient civilization we visited the day before. We went inside the museum, where they were showing a film about the temple. The museum staff was incredibly nice (very unlike American museum staff), and they took the time to get American subtitles on the film, so I could understand. We learned about the Temple of Victory erected at Himera which was dedicated to the Greek Goddess Athena. The temple was built after a bloody battle between the Greeks and Carthaginians who came to attack the civilization. Even though the Greeks were outnumbered, they were able to win with the help of a tyrant from Syracuse who helped the Greeks in battle in return for taking over the town. The civilians built a temple in commemoration of the battle.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

In the museum, we got to see the actual skeletons of the people and horses who were found in a mass grave together, which shows how they treated the horses with the same honor as the soldiers.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

We then visited another building with artifacts from the civilization. They had so many artifacts that they have to store most of them in the basement because there isn’t enough space to show them all.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

After the tour, we went to the town of Cerda where we saw the world’s only artichoke monument!

Image for post
Image for post

We went to eat lunch in a nearby large restaurant. They brought tons of plates to the table served family style. First course was fresh ricotta, artichokes with a tangy sauce, olives, bread with olive oil and anchovies, artichoke with tomato and ricotta, a tomato olive spread, and an entire tray of roasted artichokes, artichoke with breadcrumbs and onion, artichoke/potato squares, fried artichoke, deep fried artichoke, Sicilian sausage and cheese. As if that was not enough food, second course was a risotto with ricotta and a pasta in a tomato sauce. At this point, we made the smart choice to take the third course to go. The fourth course was an incredible cannoli and fruit including oranges, apples, and mandarins.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

People were dancing Sicilian style in the restaurant.

Image for post
Image for post

We then headed back to San Ambrogio for a rest. We had no need to eat dinner that night, because of how much food we had consumed for lunch.

Around 6 PM, Gaetano took me to see more of Cefalu including Il Duomo. All of the tourists had flooded in, so it was very hard to find parking. Finally, we found parking, and Gaetano took me through the town. We went inside Il Duomo where they were in session for Mass. The main feature of the cathedral, the mosaic, was covered up with cloth for restoration.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

After, we went up the hill of Cefalu to Gaetano’s brother’s summer home. He frequently comes here to collect the Nespoli before the birds get to the fruit. The house had a beautiful view of the entire town and the ocean. We watched the sunset from here and drove back home.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Back in San Ambrogio, we joined Jackie upstairs to watch the television. I taught Gaetano and Jackie how to use Snapchat including the various animal filters. They loved it, and Jackie even downloaded the app!

Image for post
Image for post

DAY 5

The next morning, I had arranged to hike up La Rocca with a girl named Margherita who is my aunt by some relation.

The climb was not too bad and featured unreal views of Cefalu you could not get any other way. There was even an Ancient Greek Temple dedicated to Artemis up there.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

After we hiked, Margherita took me to a few spots around Cefalu where you could see the ocean the best, including one spot where Cinema Paradiso was filmed.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

When I returned to San Ambrogio, Gaetano and Jackie told me they had missed me, which really meant a lot to hear. We had become very close in such little time.

Later on, Gaetano took me to go back to Castelbuono where we went to the music club. A man inside the music club offered me some homemade limoncello. Gaetano played through his entire album of mandolin songs while all the old men surrounded the club to listen. The music really brings everyone in town together.

Gaetano and I headed back to San Ambrogio, and he took a road right next to the ocean.

Image for post
Image for post

Apparently, on this rock, there is a gigantic human footprint which can be seen even today.

Image for post
Image for post

This was my last day in San Ambrogio, and I was feeling sadder than I had ever been to leave a place. Gaetano and Jackie went completely out of their way to make me feel at home, making it even harder to say goodbye. I will miss the beautiful Sicilian landscapes, the unreal quality of the food here, the deep-rooted history, and most importantly the people. Typically, when traveling I don’t like to return to the same place twice; however, there is no doubt in my mind that I will be returning as soon as possible.

Image for post
Image for post

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store