The trip to Sicily in 2005 was a kind of first for me. Travel was always on my agenda and in those years, leisure travel to foreign destinations was rather beyond my purse. Most international travel was for academic conferences, which were supported. But in all these trips, I tried to spend some stolen hours, sometimes a day or two to take in the local sites. And usually, there would be colleagues at the meeting also interested to take in some sight seeing.
In 2005, I was to attend a meeting at one of the coastal resorts of Sicily. Sicily to most of us only brings to mind the ‘Italian mafia’. But I was aware that it also had an active volcano (Mt Etna) and many Roman sites. As the brochure said that the conference venue was an hour away by road from Palermo, I knew that there would be no opportunity to see any of these sights. So, I planned to stay over at Palermo for 4 days after the meeting. Those were days when our mobility was still limited and since I did not have an International credit card, I got the hotel booking done by my brother in Amsterdam.
After the meeting wound up, I took the coach delegates were taking to the airport and got dropped off in Palermo. It was the first time that I was doing this kind of thing alone – I started off a little nervously. I had to struggle to find the hotel, a small place with no ground level presence, in the upper floors of an old building. And no one in the hotel had a a word of English. But I settled in with my guide book, maps and Google downloaded material to plan for the stay.
Palermo is a large town by European standards, (about a million people), with well preserved, old buildings, dotted with churches and gardens. There are no high rises, and there is a slow laid back air to the streets. It is a busy tourist destination, and the streets had a large number of the tourist coaches, even though April is early in the European holiday calender. The residential streets are quiet and orderly.
I walked through the town on that first day and absorbed its flavors. And ended up in a small restaurant near the hotel to eat a dinner, hesitant and unsure of the menu, language and the surroundings. The weather was perfect.Greek temples,
I had planned each days outing carefully, so that I could get to the sits on the western part of the island, that could be done as day trips. I had worked out the transport, through bus and train, leaving each morning after a good breakfast. This way I got to the marvelous Greek temples at Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte. The public transport was punctual, with very few folks in it. On a couple of occasions I was the only one in the coach, giving me a some cause for worry – will I get to the right place? Will I know it when it comes?? But everything worked out well except on the return trip from Agrigento, when I was the only passenger waiting for the only train that did not materialise when it was supposed to. Many anxious moments later, it chugged in much to my relief.
The sites themselves were awesome. We have few remains of this vintage (5th and 6th century BCE ) in our country. Of course the remains of the Mohenjodara, Harappan civilizations are far older – and Nalanda (which I have not seen) would date back to a similar period. Our, rather savage history of invasions and wars has probably brought down many of the grand structures of those times. We do have many impressive sites dating from various periods in history with the most wonderful architecture and grand dimensions, and among these I have visited as in Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat or Hampi in Karnataka. But what impressed me then and has stayed with me, were the absolutely dramatic location of these grand Greek temples. Many, had the sea in the back drop – I have to say that I had not seen (or have since then seen) anything quite as grand and imposing.
By the second evening, I felt confident enough to pick one of the recommended restaurants, and order a glass of wine and taste the local Italian food. And I tried to savour a different part of the town every day. Palermo itself has a lot to see, with many Piazzas and fountains, and grand public buildings. Also wonderful street markets, from where I bought locally preserved olives, the best I have eaten.
The most important site is the Cappella Palatina. It is as exquisite, mosaic filled chapel built in 1120 CE in which the Moorish influence is very evident. It has the most beautiful, Christ I have seen, all done in these wonderful colors.
The only thing ‘Mafia’ related I saw was a statue for the Judge who convicted many of the mob members and got shot dead himself. There is much more to Sicily that what I saw, as I could not make it to Mt Etna or the Roman sites on the Eastern side of the island. I am almost certain that I will not go to Sicily again, but as my first solo outing, it will hold a special place for me. I have not had to do it again, but this trip made me feel confident that if I wanted to go some place, I did not need to wait for company. And for those looking for a great vacation, I would recommend Sicily as a great destination.