Scenes from Sicily, Diciassette – Ridge Above Valle de Bove

While I was listening to Italian language lessons before going to Sicily in July, I found myself wondering about the number 17, or in Italian, diciassette. Specifically, I was curious why, at 17, the structure of how you say the number flips, where you say the 10 part first, and then you say the number part. For 11 to 16, you say the 10 part (dieci) and then the number added to ten to make the number you are trying to convey. So, undici for 11; literally, one (uno) + ten (dieci). Then, dodici for 12 (due + dieci). Followed by tredici for 13 (tre + dieci). When you get to 17, you flip it, so that you say the 10 part first, and then the 7.

Why is this interesting? Well, languages similar to Italian do it earlier in the series of numbers, or at least they do it in a different place. Spanish, which is closely related to Italian, makes this change at 16, not 17. French makes the change at 17, the same as Italian, but English, we do it at 13. Portuguese changes at 16, but this could be because of its close proximity to Spanish. Dutch and German, each closely related to English, also makes their changes at 13. None of this seems to affect the major Eastern European languages, like Polish, Czech, and Russian, who simply start at 11 to say the first digit and then the ten’s digit. Perhaps most interesting is that Latin, the parent language to Italian, French, and Spanish, makes the change at 18, going from sedecim (16) to septendecim (17) to duodeviginti (18) to undeviginti (19).

Anyway, this topic was still going through my mind while I made my way down Mount Etna, passing this scene at top of the Valle de Bove among the wispy clouds at about 8,500 feet, far away from any other people, hoping my feet didn’t slip or the hillside didn’t give way and kill me with a 1,500 foot tumble down into the valley floor below. I stopped to snap this shot right when I started to notice living things appearing among the volcanic stones. After such a bleak landscape for several hours, any color was a real treat.

Other pictures from our July 2012 Sicily trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Sedici – Tusa Autostrada

On the north coast of Sicily, just to the east of Cefalu near Tusa, we stopped by the ruins of Halaesa, which are perched on a prominent hill above the Tusa River and this beautiful example of the Italian interstate road system, which they call the autostrada. Between Messina and Palermo, the autostrada plunged into hills like a needle and thread through cloth. Tunnels run into the multiple kilometers, and the whole thing seems relatively space-age and strikingly beautiful. Due to the higher cost of construction, this stretch of Sicilian autostrada is a toll road, but it was cheaper than other similar autostrada we took in northern Italy in 2009.

More photos from our July 2012 trip to Sicily are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Quindici – Salina’s Pollara Arch

This is a massive sea arch near Pollara on the island of Salina, off the north coast of Sicily. By luck, if you squint, you can see the island of Stromboli through the arch. Laura and family took us out on their boat for a circumnavigation of Salina, and this point is on the far side of the island, opposite of Santa Marina, where the ferry docks and where we spent most of our time.

This picture was taken from the water, floating above an ancient, collapsed caldera. Salina has two old volcanos on it, and this was a third. As you can see, it is a very beautiful place. Many thanks to Laura for making it possible for us to see it.

More photos from our July trip to Sicily and Salina are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Quattordici – Enna at Sunset

This is one of my favorite photos from the Sicily trip. In it, you can see the northern section of the central Sicilian town of Enna in the foreground, with rolling hills and a sunset, dreamy and faded in the western sky.

We ended up in Enna by accident. We couldn’t decide where to stay when heading toward Syracusa from the western side of the island, and Enna opened up a possibility because there was a hostel there with an opening and a pretty cheap rate for a quick overnight stay. A week before we were set to arrive, however, the booking agency emailed to let us know the hostel was overbooked, so they moved our reservation to the much fancier Hotel Sicilia Enna and paid the difference.

Thus began a fortuitous evening where we arrived at the Castello di Lombardia just at sunset and were able to enjoy scenes like the photo above, ate dinner in a tiny little traditional restaurant (Grotta Assurra) run by a cute and caring elderly couple (he cooked and she took our order – there were only 5 or so tables in the whole place, and only 2 were occupied), and observed modern teenage life on a Friday evening, when kids come from surrounding towns to hang out in the same square, giggle at one another, and stare at little screens in the dark.

It is worth noting that, historically speaking, Enna could be considered a metaphor for all of Sicily, in that it is old and has been conquered a lot. People have lived on the 2800 foot high, mostly sheer, hill since at least the 14th century BC. Occupying such a prominent position over the surrounding countryside, while only being a day’s journey from each of the 3 major coasts, made Enna a popular target, and it was captured by the Sicani, then the Siculi, then the Greeks, then the Carthaginians, then the Romans, then by the Byzantines, Islamic forces, Normans, and on and on. Many of the captures involved treachery rather than military might, and the town has been known by other names, such a Henna and Castrogiovanni, at least until Mussolini gave it the current name.

More photos of our July 2012 trip to Sicily are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Tredici – Erice Behind Us

This is a photo of me and Kath with the mountaintop fortress/town of Erice behind us. It was taken by Iolanda, proprietress of Al Frantoio (“The Crusher,” in English), the B&B we stayed in in Valderice, a larger town just down the hill from Erice. For some reason, this one of the only pictures we have of Erice high up on the hill, though we have quite a few looking down on surrounding towns.

We really enjoyed our stay at Al Frantoio. If you find yourself in northwest Sicily and would like to stay somewhere that is very comfortable and convenient to many sights, all combined with gracious hospitality and sea views, consider booking some nights at Al Frantoio. Their website is

Scenes from Sicily, Dodici – Little House Island

One of our favorite Sicilian towns is Santo Stefano di Camastra, located on the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the north coast of the island. We stopped on the main street (SS113) through town, having read that a good selection of pottery is available, at reasonable prices. Well, some of the pottery was interesting, but as we turned the corner and entered the back streets, especially those that shoot off of Via Vittorio Emanuele, we really started to get a sense of quiet town life.

Sitting in the main square, watching old women in twos and threes heading into Mass, listening to the old men swap stories under the olive trees by the Societa Operaia, and following the young families with babies in carriages strolling slowly down Via Roma at sunset, all of things dug deeper into authenticity than we had experienced up to that point. There was something ageless about it all, balanced, and hopefully sustainable.

Another interesting thing we discovered in Santo Stefano di Camastra that kept reappearing throughout the rest of the trip is the little island of a house, sandwiched between streets. This photo of Kath in front of one of these house (who knows how old it is?) reminds me of our many walks winding through town, moving through an ancient grid while noticing as many as 13 wifi access points at a time coming up on my phone (all, unfortunately, password protected). The juxtaposition of modernity with an a pattern of life from antiquity, meshed, kept me thinking about the place for days after we headed down the road.

More photos from the July 2012 Sicily trip are here.

Scenes from Sicily, Undici – Palermo Graffiti

While on our steamy walk around a sweltering Palermo, Kath and I kept seeing interesting, surreal (and maybe Cubist?) graffiti in various places. I’m used to the Banksy-like stuff that you find in most larger cities these days, but this was something altogether different and exciting. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and now that I’m home with photos of it, I’m still drawn to it. And a lot of it was big, taking up an entire wall.

Apparently, Palermo has a pretty strong underground art movement. Maybe it is only fitting, then, that the word graffiti actually comes from the Italian word graffiato, which is to scratch or scribble.

More pictures from the Sicily trip can be seen here.

Scenes from Sicily, Dieci – Blessed Salemi

Before heading out to see the ruins of Gibellina (and what could be called the ruins of Gibellina Nuova), Kath and stopped in nearby Salemi, an administrative center in the western part of the province of Trapani, about 45 miles southwest of Palermo. This photo shows the view from the municipal traffic circle up to the castle at the top of the hill, where Garibaldi announced the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. For a short period, Salemi was the capital of Sicily, at least until Garibaldi moved on to complete his conquest of the rest of the island.

We were only in Salemi for a couple of hours, but the more I read about the place, the more interesting I find it. For example, I’m sure, at some future post, I will talk about the decrepit outdoor elevator system we saw there (which you can partially see from Google Street View). However, I just found out about a real bargain, which I love to pass along when I find them.

Anyone for a 1 Euro house in Italy? For the last few years, Salemi has been getting a little bit of press for a scheme to sell houses in the historic town center for only 1 Euro each. Sound like a sweet deal? Well, there is only a bit of a catch. The area of town where the houses are available was wrecked by the 1968 earthquake that decimated the region (and flattened nearby Gibellina). So, while you are only laying out 1 Euro for the deed, you are also required to promise to restore the structure to local, modern building codes. And, even for the homes with the least amount of damage, the cost for these renovations would be at least 100,000 Euro.

More pics from the trip are available here.

Scenes from Sicily, Nove – Erice Church Window

The first thing we saw when entering the hilltop, medieval town of Erice, located in northwest Sicily, was the Chiesa Madre (Mother Church) and its accompanying, separate bell tower. Above the entrance to the church is a beautiful window, done in the rose window style. According to the date on the window, it is only about 60 years old (650 years younger than the church).

To get this picture, we went up in the bell tower (which was originally a “vendetta tower” and begun a couple of years before the church). I stuck my camera out one of the openings in the ancient stairwell and zoomed as far as I would dare with one hand.

I love the easy way Italians, and especially Sicilians, mix old and new cultural items. I’m sure there was some debate over the design of the art to be added to such a cultural treasure, but when it was time to add it, everything fit like a glove. You see this over and over again in Sicily: respect for antiquity but the aversion to treat it as something totally of the past. I guess when you are surrounded by structures and detritus of a dozen civilizations that cross a few millennia, all of it is something more than just a background set to your life that you aren’t allowed to touch. They aren’t afraid to be wrong, and more often than not, their changes are something more than right.

More pictures of the trip can be seen here.