Thursday, March 31, 2011

In search of Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso was Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore's love letter to cinema, which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1989. It tells the story of the arrival of cinema in a small Sicilian village, and the impact this has on one young boy.

Parts of the movie were shot in Palazzo Adriano, a tiny hamlet that sits on a ridge at 700m above sea-level. Being fans of the movie, we couldn't come to this part of Sicily and not take the winding trip up the mountainside to see the village for ourselves. After a seemingly endless series of serpentine roads, beautiful views and yet another wonderful pasta lunch in a friendly trattoria hidden in the mountains, we finally arrived.

The square looked familiar, but we'd be lying if we said that it looked exactly as we remembered from the movie.

We're not sure if this is because it's been a few years since we've seen Cinema Paradiso, or because the director worked some movie magic with fake facades and clever camera angles. Perhaps it's a bit of both. In any case, we've promised ourselves that we're going to refresh our memories by watching the movie again as soon as we get back to Sweden.

Walking around the picturesque little village we got the distinct impression that the locals were eyeing us with suspicion. Perhaps the flood of tourists the village experienced during the Nineties has slowed to a trickle, and now tourists are an unusual sight in the village again? Or was it just that we were an unusual sight in our short sleeves on that cloudy afternoon, when the italians were still dressed in their winter coats?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Babies are called bimbi in Italian and since we have a nine and a half months old with us, it is almost impossible not to write about the new customs and habits we have come across regarding the little ones.

First and foremost, statistics may show that Italy is suffering from the lowest nativity rates in Europe, but in this corner of the country we seem to be noticing the opposite. Almost everywhere you look, in small or large towns, there is an abundance of stores dedicates to the youngest. There are clothes stores selling the cutest outfits imaginable, many almost doll-like for the girls and very tailored for the boys. Practicality doesn’t seem to be in fashion here, but hey, this is the country of Dolce and Gabbana and not of Polarn and Pyret. Funny enough the well-known colour schemes for boys and girls don’t seem to apply here either. The little girls seem to be dressed in blues, whites and purples and not only in different shades of pink. The boy’s outfits tend to stick to black and red tones. From what we understood, as much as the clothes look nice, the price and quality ratio isn’t always the best, so we’ll stick to what we have for now and will probably just opt for an absolute “must have” if we see it.

If the clothes shops (not many chains here) weren’t enough, there are toys stores, party stores and even underwear stores for the little ones, all competing with each other to win customers.

The strangest thing we have found so far are the pharmacies though. Unlike in the rest of Europe, pharmacies seem to be the place where parents buy baby food, nappies, wet wipes, crèmes, lotions, toys, dummies, bottles – well, basically everything apart from clothes. We asked how it came to be that all of these items (that we normally buy in a supermarket) were sold in a pharmacy, we got a very surprised look and the response “But where else?”.

So now we do like most Italians do and buy our Pampers (not as good as the Libero’s) and our wet-wipes (that are all perfumed!) in the pharmacies but we stay clear of the cans of food. Not because we don’t trust the Italian baby food products, but because the fresh ingredients here are just so full of flavour that we would feel bad depriving “mini” from them. Although, as we were looking for iron enriched porridge we found out that in Italy babies don’t get enriched anything, the food here is considered good enough.

They definitely feed children well in Italy, but without the long list of rules that seems so important to parents in Sweden. Our little one has in just the last few days been given everything from grandma’s spaghetti, to parmesan, to strawberries and choux á la crème from the eager hands of our Italian friends, but she munched them all down with great happiness.

The conclusion we have reached so far is that the bimbi are adored, constantly shown off, the immediate center of attention and all adults can’t resist giving them toys, oranges and food. No wonder the children look so happy here!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Grandma’s pasta

Sundays are supposed to be a family day here in Italy, though it’s easy to believe that every day of the week could be described that way. We guess that our Italian friends at the pasticceria felt sorry for us not having our relatives close by, so they invited us over to their grandma’s house for Sunday lunch.

Our expectations were high; our first Italian family lunch, and cooked by grandma no less – in Italy, the gastronomic pillar of the family.

During the short walk from the pasticceria to grandma’s house “mini” was shown off to all the neighbours and passing acquaintances as if she was part of the family. We were heartily welcomed by the grandmother on her door-step. The street entrance to her house led immediately into the kitchen, where she already had set the table for seven. The smell of the upcoming feast, cooking in the corner on her large stove, was like a nice prelude for the flavour symphony yet to come.

Since it was past our little one’s lunch time we began by feeding her outside in the sun-soaked street, with the whole family spinning around her, admiring her appetite. Shortly after, the grandmother spoke the magic words “A tavola, mangiamo!”

Thus the feast began. The first course (of many) was one of spaghetti al sugo, or spaghetti with a homemade tomato sauce, where everything from the tomatoes to the olive oil came from the family’s plot of land. It might seem silly to praise a dish as simple as spaghetti with a tomato sauce, but this one truly deserved it, since it was the ultimate genuine food experience – no fuss, no tricks - just delicious ingredients, perfectly cooked.

Since they were sure that we couldn’t possibly have had enough to eat after the first huge bowl of pasta, they refilled them again (and again) whilst they continued onto the “secondi” of rabbit and chicken. By that point we could have easily rolled our way out of the kitchen but there was still more to come.

To everybody’s amusement “mini” was keeping pace with us, and was already on her second small serving on spaghetti al sugo. The remaining pasta and meat was whisked off the table and on came the salads, hand picked olives and a giant Italian baguette. The salads were followed by a huge fruit bowl and to nobody’s surprise an even bigger plate of dolci.

The amount of food was almost comical, and left us wishing that we were wearing elastic waistbands. We learnt that Italian etiquette doesn’t appear to allow self-service when it comes to food, we both had six dolci specially selected for us. Now neither of us is known to be a particularly small eater, but by our third and fifth dolci we had to admit defeat. Our hosts didn’t seem too impressed by our lack of conviction and explained that this was just a typical Italian lunch (not Sunday lunch!) and that we could always get back to our old habits in Sweden. For now, this was Italy: family, sunshine and grandma’s wonderful pasta.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The valley of the temples

Last week when we were in the town of Agrigento, we didn’t have the time to stop and explore the “valley of the temples”, which is situated below the city on a plane that stretches towards the sea.

Today we made visiting the valley the main point on our agenda. After a wonderful pasta lunch in a small trattoria overlooking the plains of Agrigento, we headed back down into the valley.

We were a little worried about pushchair accessibility around the temples, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a smooth path running the entire length of the temple site.

The temples themselves looked majestic in the soft afternoon sunlight. A gentle breeze brought the faint scent of the sea across the plain. It wasn’t hard to see why the Greek settlers had chosen this site for their holy buildings, more than two and a half thousand years ago. We passed temples built to honour Zeus, Hera, Castor and Pollux, Concordia and Heracles. They say that pictures paint a thousand words, perhaps it’s best if we just let them do the talking

Palermo at a glance

For the first eleven days of our stay in Sicily our little “mini” has had four adults caring, playing and comforting her since her grandparents (i.e. farmor & farfar for the Swedish speakers) also joined us in Italy. Unfortunately yesterday they went back to England, so before waving them off at Palermo airport, we took the opportunity to take a quick visit into the city.

Haven gotten used to the tranquillity and size of the small villages around our home, Palermo reminded us what a big city looks and sounds like. Cars and mopeds were speeding along side one another competing for non-existent space, using their horns very liberally seemingly for no reason at all. From our quick drive through the city we spotted large avenues, interesting architecture and definitely more shops to spend your money in than near where we’re staying.

Since we only had about an hour to spend in the city and also needed to have lunch, we decided after a few minutes of walking to sit down at a place on a narrow restaurant street, underneath balconies with drying laundry!

The place that had won our trust was held by a true Italian “mama” who was inviting people to her home made spread of typical Sicilian specialities.

Unfortunately the food looked much better than it tasted and only two of us were content with their choices, so we ended up wandering off shortly, in the search for a place to have coffees in the sun.

The coffee place we discovered turned out to be a much better find and we enjoyed a lovely half an hour drinking delicious espressos and making conversation with the people around us. Unfortunately our time in the city passed all too quickly. After dropping the grandparents off at the airport and seeing Palermo disappearing in our rear-view mirror, we agreed that we must return soon, and see the city at more than just at a glance.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


After the unexpected find of the great restaurant Vittorio, we had another pleasant surprise later in the afternoon. Our friends from the pasticerria called and invited us over for a casual Tuesday night dinner at their place. After accepting their invitation and apologizing for causing any inconvenience for our mainly vegetarian preferences, we turned up later that evening, not really know what to expect.

We were certainly not prepared to discover that their apartment, in a modest building above the pasticceria, looked like something taken out of an Italian interior design magazine. Everything in their apartment was designed by the 19 year old daughter, who was 16 when she did the actual design. We could only gasp as we entered each new room and our senses were arrested by cavalcades of colours, patterns and design touches. It was luxurious, colourful and rich in detail, the opposite of Swedish minimalism. It suited the family perfectly.

After the grand tour and after quickly feeding the little one, we were invited to the table, where a large display of fish, salads, cheeses, pizza slices, bread, wine and artichokes was awaiting us. Everything was lovely and we even managed to get some conversation going, about Italian eating habits, work, school and of course our little one, who again became the center of attention. Among other things we found out that our suspicions were right concerning the fact that Italians eat pasta at lunch and not later in the day, and that dinner often is something lighter, like a bit of meat or fish and salad. That is if you’re not having pizza of course, which in Sicily is only served at night. We also talked about how the area has been impoverished during the last years and how Ribera shrunk from 20 000 to only 7000 inhabitants. Luckily, the Italians really like their “dolci” so our friends will hopefully not be too affected by the situation.

As it was getting late and our little one seemed to have had enough food and attention for one night, we tried to excuse ourselves, thanking our hosts in all ways possible for the hospitality and the nice food The mother and daughter didn’t want to hear our gratitude and tried to explain that, “In Italy, if you’re really friends with someone you don’t thank for this, you just say good night” And although it felt odd – that’s just what we did.

Victory at Vittorios

Yesterday we decided to be a little more adventurous and visit a nearby town that wasn’t mentioned in our guidebook. We had set off pretty late and Melfi looked like a good place to stop for lunch before heading to another historic temple site.

Unfortunately the guidebook was right not to contain the little town of Menfi as a must-see attraction. Although the town was neat and fairly new, there was not much to see apart from a nice view from one of the main squares. So after walking up and down the streets for a little while we asked a local for the best trattoria in the neighbourhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she recommended a restaurant outside the town, down by the sea. Never being ones to ignore local advice on the best places to eat, we headed out of the town and down towards the sea on winding roads, flanked by lush meadows and orange tree farms.

“Restaurant Vittorio” as it was called, turned out to be a hidden gem. Situated well away from the main road, it nevertheless appeared to be very busy for this time of year as it had more luxurious cars parked outside than anywhere we had seen. From the minute we entered the stylish and minimalist restaurant on the beach we understood why. Everything from the placement right on the sandy white shore, to the interior decoration was just right.

We haven’t yet been served a single mediocre meal since we arrived in Sicily. Vittorio didn’t look like it was about to buck that trend. We ordered pasta and seafood waited for it by sipping the local mineral water and staring out across the sea. The food arrived, and the seafood was so fresh it was probably still swimming that morning. The olive oil gave all of the dishes a wonderfully subtle and fresh kick. So we ate, chatted, smiled and glanced every now and then to the beautiful beach scene outside.

Travelling with the little one yet again helped us to begin conversations with our dining neighbours on either side of our table and later also with the wife of the owner. From what we could make out the owners named the restaurant after their son Vittorio, a cute little boy of 18 months that our little one was very happy to run after (held by her mummy) in the restaurant.

After the trouble finding a place to eat, following by a long and relaxing Sicilian lunch, the historic site would have to wait for another day. No great loss though, the lunch had been a real victory for Italian cuisine and for us

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Unexpected sights and marvellous views

Planning our trips over breakfast has become one of our favourite new habits. We sit around the big table in our kitchen/living room and contemplate potential destinations for the day. The criteria are fairly simple: we look in the guidebook for an interesting/beautiful sight we haven’t yet visited and a place to have lunch in, all within a reasonable distance from the house so we don’t bore the little one with too much driving.

Today’s first stop took us about 30km west from our village to the little town of Siculiana, mostly famous for its impressive fortress, watching over the valley below.

The town itself seemed very quiet and we noticed some eyebrows were raised as our group of four and a baby walked through the city. Unfortunately everything was closed, including the fortress so the only attraction remaining was the beautiful Chiesa Madre, a Baroque church, dominating the main square.

Inside it was as calm and empty as outside, apart from a nice old man who insisted on silently leading us the around the church. The stained glass window and many other features were beautiful, rich in detail and colour, a world away from the minimalist style of the Nordic Protestant churches. Both in size and presence Chiesa Madre was definitely an unexpected delight.

Since nothing was open in the village we found our way to the marina, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch with fresh grilled fish, right on the beach, overlooking the golden sand and the light blue sea crashing into the shore.

Before heading home, we stopped at the archaeological site of Eraclea Minoa, where a Greek amphi-theatre and a Roman village were excavated in the 1950s. The settlement was developed by Spartan colonists in 600BC and later became a Roman colony. Walking through what was once the village we could see where the streets would have been and the layout of the tiny homes, but it was difficult to imagine exactly how life would have been back then. Maybe we also got too distracted by the amazing views that the site offered from its position on a hill. In both directions and as far as the eye could see there was nothing but beauty; the sea, the shore, the cliffs the beach – exactly as it probably has been over the centuries. So maybe we could right there and then for a second get a glimpse of what life looked like thousands of years ago.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The holy pasta

We met up with our new friends in their Pasticceria at midday. They had prepared a couple of aperitifs for our arrival, deep red and sweet cocktails tasting of orange and ginger. After enjoying the drinks and politely refusing any more of their wonderful “dolci”, we got straight into two cars and headed off towards our unknown destination.

What we had understood was going to be a barbeque turned out to be an outdoor pasta cook-off, much like the feast of San Giuseppe we attended the day before. However, this was clearly more of a private party than a town event. From what we gathered later it was get-together of shop owners from a small quarter of Ribera.

There were about eighty people in total, from grandmothers to babies. The women were dashing in and out of the house bringing bowls and spoons, while the men stood around the giant pots, tending to the fires and stirring the pasta. The clear blue skies of the morning had turned to rolling dark clouds, which gathered ominously overhead. The hosts must have sensed that rain was coming, because as soon as the pasta was cooked it was rushed into the large covered marquee and followed quickly by everyone else.

The moment everyone had found a seat in the marquee, the heavens opened and rain poured out of the sky. Perhaps the priest, who had arrived five minutes earlier to bless the pasta, had given the hosts an inside tip?

The holy pasta turned out to be delicious. We chatted more with our new friends, which wasn’t always easy given our language barrier, and shared the pasta around the table. Everyone else in the marquee also seemed to be having a great time, children were running around, and their parents were chatting and laughing. Eventually all the pasta was polished off, and it was out with the “dolci” - supplied by our new friends. A huge tray-full was brought to our table, and we were able to try a few new specialities, as well as some old favourites.

After we had finished eating desert, it was time to feed the little one. Pulling a blond and blue-eyed baby out of her pushchair seemed to cause something of a stir at the nearby tables. By the time we had finished feeding her, a sizeable crowd had gathered. Everyone wanted to hold, touch or kiss her. “Bellisimo!” “Bella!” A small group of teenage girls seemed particularly taken with her, and followed her round for the rest of the party.

When all the “dolci” had been eaten, the hosts brought out huge baskets of Ribera oranges. Ribera oranges were brought back to Sicily by ex-emigrants to America, and they are the largest and juiciest oranges we’ve ever tasted. The perfect end to a wonderful party.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The town feast

As we arrived back at the Pasticceria to meet our hosts, we weren’t really sure how the feast of San Giuseppe was going to unfold. The only information we managed to find on the Internet was that it was a celebration dedicated to the patron saint of workers, but not actually how it is celebrated. As we were waiting outside the pastry shop for our hosts to get ready, we were told (over more small sweet delights of course) that this was a particular tradition of the town Ribera. The story, from what we could gather, is that people make a prayer for a miracle in their lives (like a sick child getting better) and in the hope of increasing the chance of their prayer being answered they offer a feast to the locals.

A few hundred people were gathered outside one family’s house, waiting for the ceremony to begin and the food to be handed out. Several women watched closely over four or five huge pots of broth and vegetable, boiling over open fires, whilst two young men were ignoring the intense smoke and the heat, stirring the broth with big wooden spoons. Expectations in the crowd grew, and soon a group of children dressed up as St. Joseph, Mary, Jesus and the angels made their entrance, led by an old man banging rhythmically on a drum. Blessings and prayers were recited inside the temporary altar inside the family’s garage and blessed bread was handed out to the crowd.

What people really wanted now was the pasta. In just a few minutes people went from politely listen quietly to the children to shouting and indicating towards plastic bowls, spoons and the best places to get the “ministra” (or as we would know it the minestrone). In spite of several tries it was impossible to get hold of any food before it was all dealt out or before we had to give up since the smoke was making our eyes water. Luckily, our “hosts” gave us their portion before they battled their way back into the crowds for some more. So there we were, standing in the middle of the street, in the sunshine, eating our first “ministra” and smiling, thinking how lucky we are to already have seen a slice of Sicilian life.

And our luck seems to be holding since we’ve also been invited to our new Sicilian friend’s summer house for a barbeque.

New friends

All the Sicilians we’ve chatted with so far have been incredibly friendly, generous and welcoming. None more so than the family who owns “Dolce Ricordi”, one of the small Pasticcerias in Ribera. We spotted it down a small side street, and hoped it might be a good place to pick up some Cannoli for our afternoon coffee back at the house. We ended up picking up much more than just Cannoli. We stepped into the tiny pastry and coffee shop, and were greeted by a young woman standing behind their pride and joy: a display case of innumerable small cakes, pastries and biscuits.

The smell was heavenly, like grandma’s kitchen after she’s just pulled a lemon cake out of the oven. We asked if they had any Cannoli and they said they could make us a fresh batch. While we were waiting for our Cannoli to be prepared in the kitchen, the young lady insisted that we try some of their other treats. If Ribera is famous for its oranges, then this Pasticceria should be famous for what it does with those oranges. Every mouthful contained some delicious combinations of oranges, nuts, ricotta, vanilla cream and pastry. By the time our Cannoli were ready we had been given three or four different treats to try, all mouth watering. They insisted that we only pay for the Cannoli, we insisted that we pay for everything that we’d eaten. They won the discussion, and some new customers.

We returned to “Dolce Ricordi” a few days later to have a coffee. We discovered that it’s run by three generations of women from the same family. The women run the shop, while their husbands do the baking. This time it came as no surprise that they didn’t allow us to pay for all the pastries they served up with our coffees, but it did come as a surprise when they invited us to join them as their guests at the feast of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph) the day after. We gladly accepted their kind invitation.

New places

It’s been a week since we first arrived in Sicily and although we’re taking it very “piano” we already feel like we’ve experienced so much. These last few days we’ve been exploring the towns around our village and have been taken by their genuine charm. First on the list was Scaccia, which, like many towns and villages around here, sits precariously on a hill. It offers stunning views down to its harbour and out across the light blue sea.

Scaccia is mostly famous for its beautiful painted ceramics, but also for its old churches and historic sites. Though it seems like everywhere you go around here is a historic site!

After a nice walk around the town and an even nicer lunch in an osteria, we braved the climb (by car) up to the top of the mountain that looms behind the town. After slowly climbing the long and twisty road we arrived at the top and were treated to an even more breathtaking view across Sciacca and down to the sea. The wind was blowing so fiercely at the top that we had to hold onto the railing or each other, to avoid being blown over.

The next day we headed into the other direction towards the city of Agrigento, the largest town in this part of Sicily. Also on a hill, and also with narrow streets where pedestrians, speeding mopeds and cars all try to share the same space, the town seemed impressive, although not as welcoming as Sciacca. Maybe this impression was purely our fault, since we arrived when everything was closed for the daily siesta. Just below the town lies one of the most famous archaeological sites of the region, the “Valle dei templi”. The remains of five Greek temples in various stages of ruin are spread across a 3km plain. Since it was late in the afternoon we only drove past this time, but we promised to be back equipped with good shoes, sun hats and lots of water. Although, considering how hot it is getting already, maybe a gelato would be a more appropriate cooling aid – perhaps they should put up a temple for ice-cream. I know that I’d worship there.