Originally blogged September 30, 2012
I have never been much for using travel guides. Whenever I have travelled in the past, I have depended on advice from the people I met locally to find the restaurants, hotels, and the most interesting sites. Nick, on the other hand, would pack every book we owned on Italy if we had space and unlimited luggage weight. This trip, I managed to keep him down to two books: Top 10 Sicily and the Cadogan guide on Sicily.
While I haven’t read a lot of travel guides, I am a reader. I usually have either a stack of real or virtual books sitting next to my bed waiting for me to read them and this trip was no different with one exception – I didn’t bring enough reading material. After the last of my books were finished, I found myself rummaging around in my husband’s suitcase to see if there were any books that I didn’t know about.
So, after finding no fiction (I prefer fiction over nonfiction and fantasy over everything else) I picked up Nick’s Cadogan guide to Sicily and Top 10 Sicily and started reading. The Cadogan guide was written by Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls. I haven’t read (to my knowledge) anything else by these two but just from this guide I suspect these two have a terrific sense of humour. As I read their guide, I kept coming across crazy things about Sicily that I had never heard before and as I did I would turn down the corner of the page so I could find them again and read them to Nick. So, having compiled my list here is my top 10 countdown of the crazy things I never knew about Sicily.
10. Sicily was under Byzantine rule in the 7th century ruled by Emperor Constans II. He was the first Emperor to travel to Sicily after the fall of Rome. He was seriously considering moving the Byzantine capital onto Sicilian territory at Syracusa when a courtier, furious over the slight to Constantinople, approached Constans II in the bath and killed him with a soap dish.
9. Arguably, one of history’s most interesting mystic characters was Count Alessandro Cagliostro, born Guiseppe Balsamo in Palermo in 1743. He became adept at the use of pharmaceuticals and a master at forgery and through these talents scammed and conned his way into the highest of high society throughout western Europe. His greatest coup as a con man involved convincing a goldsmith that he had discovered a cave on Monte Pellegrino that was full of treasure but guarded by devils who could only be lured away with 60 ounces of gold. The goldsmith brought the gold to the mountain but the “devils” (Cagliostro’s accomplices) came out and beat the poor goldsmith until he ran away and they scarpered with the gold.
8. On the same theme of scam artists in Palermo, this story happened much more recently. In 2005, a Palermitani couple bilked a poor woman out of 50,000 euros. How did they do this? They claimed to be vampires so convincingly that she truly believed that they would come and impregnate her with the Antichrist if she failed to pay up.
7. Lampedusa is a small, but stunningly beautiful island off the south coast of Sicily. It is about 20 square kilometres with a population of 4500. Its industries are fishing, agriculture and tourism. In 1987, Libya shot two scud missiles at Lampedusa. Fortunately for the Lampedusians, the aim of the Libyan military was not so great and the missiles fell into the sea. This was apparently in retaliation for the American bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi. Apparently the Libyans had a map in which the 51st US state was Lampedusa. (Just kidding).
6. This one actually didn’t come from my guidebooks but is one that I had seen on the television show Urban Legends and found later on the Internet. Starting in January 2004, in the tiny village of Canneto di Caronia, appliances in people’s homes would burst into flame without warning. This moved from appliances to non-electrical things like mattresses and chairs. The fires became so frequent that the region’s fire brigade set up permanent residence in Canneto di Caronia. People began to leave the town, rather than live under the constant threat of fire. Other residents believed that it was supernatural in origin and turned to the Church to perform exorcisms. After a month, the fires began to diminish. No one has any explanation for the fires. And to continue on the mystic theme…
5. In Enna, in the absolute centre of Sicily (a.k.a. Umbilicus Sicilae or Sicily’s navel), stands the Torre di Federico II. Other than being in the centre of Sicily, the spot has other significance. It is the crossroads of ancient Sicily’s three main thoroughfares which symbolize the Trinacria found on the Sicilian flag. The tower, however, is a mystery. Octagonal in shape, it has no known purpose. Federico II built the Castel del Monte in Puglia on the mainland which is also octagonal in shape and also has no know purpose. In the 1960s, historian Umberto Massocco theorized that the spot was the centre of ley lines, similar to the ones found in England. On these lines can be found a variety of landmarks of historical and spiritual importance: Agrigento, Eraclea Minoa, Syracusa, and numerous others. His suggestion was that the whole island of Sicily is a large geometrical temple.
4. Many people know the story of Archimedes running down the street yelling “Eureka”, but if you don’t, here it is. Archimedes, also known as the Wizard of Syracuse, was a mathematician and the cousin of Hieron II. Hieron had commissioned a golden crown to present to the gods at Delphi. Once the crown was finished, he asked Archimedes to find a way to ensure that the goldsmith had not cheated him and used a cheaper metal on the inside. While sitting in the bathtube in his home in Syracuse, Archimedes came up with the idea of using displacement to prove if the crown was solid gold or not. So excited by his discovery, he jumped out of his bath and ran naked down the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!!!”
3. Sicilian history seems to be full of magicians and wizards. Somerset Maugham wrote a story called “The Magician”which was based on the true-to-life story of Aleister Crowley, originally from Leamington, England. Crowley was referred to as the Magician of Cefalu’. Cefalu’ is a tourist town with a stunning bay and white glowing beach. To see this town, one would never guess that it had hosted a cult centred on drugs, sex and black magic. Crowley established the Abbey of Thelema to hold “rites” that would, he said, be the successor to Christianity. Crowley referred to himself as “The Beast” and encouraged people to do whatever they pleased, no matter how perverse. He was famous for his pornographic murals and his book “Diary of a Drug Addict”. Eventually he was thrown out of Italy by Mussolini. In 1947, on his death, his will requested that he be buried in Cefalu’. The town of Cefalu’ denied his request. (I wonder why?!?)
2. The little village of Villalba is at first glance an ordinary Sicilian village – no particular reason to visit this village over any other except for this. Near the village is Pizzo di Lauro, a mountain peak. Rumour has it that the greatest treasure in all the world is hidden on this peak. According to Facaros and Pauls, this treasure is said to be guarded by fairies living in a palace. People trying to find the treasure disappear on the mountain and all that can be found of them is the sound of their groans, moaning the following:
Pizzo di Lauro, for your riches
We have lost our lives and our salvation.
And finally, my favourite crazy story about Sicily is…