Friday, July 21, 2017


Palermo has been selected as Italian Capital of Culture 2018 so here, in no particular order, are 18 facts - some quirky, others not so - that you may not know about the city:

1.  Its Palazzo dei Normanni was, from 1130 , the seat of the Sicilian Parliament, one of the oldest in the world. (I've met a lot of Sicilians who claim that it is, in fact, the oldest.] It now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

2.  In 2016 Palermo was declared the worst city in Italy for traffic congestion.

3.  Frutti di Martorana, the marzipan "fruits" you will see everywhere in Sicily in autumn, were, according to legend, first made in The Martorana Convent in Palermo.

4.  The city's most important Arab and Norman buildings, along with the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, were collectively named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo

5.  Palermo street food is legendary. Eat it first, then ask what's in it!

6.  The Palermo football team's badge has been ranked (by the British Daily Mail) as among the best in the world.

7.  The city has wide boulevards reminiscent of towns in France.

8.  The word for traditional Sicilian rice balls, arancini, is used in its feminine form, arancine there.

9.  The Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Capuchin Catacombs) are a very macabre, and often upsetting, sight but must be seen. I once decided to leave them till last on a school trip but my students, having been shown the Parliament, Cathedral and other beautiful buildings, were impatiently demanding, "Can we go and see the dead people now?" by mid-morning.

Me with students in Palermo, 1995

10. The city is second only to Naples for the number of coffee manufacturers that call it home (47 in 2011).

11. During the reign of Ruggero (Roger) II, Palermo was a city in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side in harmony. This was to come to an end, however, under Frederick II, who expelled the Muslims in 1224.

12.  In 1185 Roger's daughter and Frederick's mother Costanza d'Altavilla (Constance d'Hauteville) travelled to Germany to be married with the greatest dowry the world had ever seen. She gave birth to her son in the market square in Ancona on her way back to Sicily. You can read more about this extraordinary journey in a book I reviewed here. Costanza is buried in Palermo Cathedral.

13.  Palermo has a museum of traditional puppets  (opera dei pupi) where you can also see puppet shows at certain times of the year.  You can find out more about opera dei pupi in my post here.

Some of my own Sicilian puppets

14.  Traditional Sicilian carts vary, from province to province, in their design and size. Those from Palermo were squarer and wider than many of the others and were originally used for transporting grapes. This is a link to an article on Sicilian carts that I wrote for Italy Magazine in 2010.

15. Not strictly in the City of Palermo but in Palermo Province and a short bus ride away is Monreale, whose cathedral, begun in 1174, is one of the best preserved examples of Norman architecture anywhere. It contains Byzantine mosaics throughout. There are stunning views of Palermo from Monreale.

16. In 2014 the priests of Palermo Cathedral were much criticised for displaying a prominent WC sign in a side chapel there. I don't know about you, but when being a tourist I've often desperately needed the loo by the time I got to a city's cathedral!

17.  Palermo was named Panormus ("complete port" or possibly "well-protected bay") by the Greeks, This became Balarme under Arabic rule.

18.  To end on a sombre note, Palermo Airport, formerly known as Punta Raisi, was renamed in 1995 in honour of the anti-Mafia judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone who were both murdered in 1992, the latter along with his wife. The airport's full name is now L''aeroporto Internazionale Falcone e Borsellino di Palermo-Punta Raisi but it is usually referred to as aeroporto Falcone e BorsellinoItaly has been remembering the two judges in this, the 25th anniversary year of the stragi (massacres) of Capaci and via D'Amelio. We must not forget that all but one of their bodyguards died with them on those terrible days.

The candidates for Italian Capital of Culture 2020 are Agrigento, Catania, Messina, Noto, Ragusa and Siracusa. Guess which two I'll be rooting for!

City of Palermo
Coat of Arms

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Here is Gianluca from Il Volo to cheer us all up:

Il Volo - soloist: Gianluca Ginoble - La Danza (Rossini)

Friday, July 14, 2017


Recently I've been reminded how much France and her freedoms have meant to me by reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café, a history of existentialist philosophy told in an effervescent, innovative style which is hinted at in the book's subtitle,  Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I felt as if I were "meeting" all the French authors who had so influenced my youth all over again and it brought back the excitement of encountering their thought for the first time.

A detail I'd forgotten but was reminded of in the book is that the lyrics of the song below were penned by none other than "Mr Existentialism" himself, Jean-Paul Sartre. Its subject matter, with its references to executions, is hardly cheery but I remember having great fun with it celebrating Bastille Day in 1989 (the bicentenary of the French Revolution) at the school where I was then head of modern languages. I don't think my noisy teenage students' renderings of it, interspersed by my playing of all nine verses of the Marseillaise, brought my colleagues in neighbouring classrooms much joy but I have fond memories of the day, even though at the end of it I was so tired that I was rather glad there was a century to go till the next such celebration. Vive la France!

Juliette Gréco -  La rue des Blancs-Manteaux

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Well, here we are, more than half way through 2017 and I find I have not posted a single recipe this year! So, although other matters, such as health and keeping up with Brexit developments (which will affect me very directly, as they will all expats), mean that I am not currently blogging as often as I'd like, let's at least put the culinary matter to rights.

My pollo allo za'atar is my take on a recipe in the June edition of the Italian magazine Vero cucina. This recipe is for bone-in chicken thighs cooked in very litle oil with lemon slices, then sprinkled with a sauce of lemon juice, garlic and mint. I tried it and found it excellent, but this week I decided I wanted to spice it up a little. There is very little za'atar in my version, actually, but I was so delighted to find some in Catania a few weeks ago that I decided it had to feature in the name of my dish.  Here we go:

Heat the oven to 180° C (fan).
Lightly oil a roasting tin and put in 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.
Cut 1 lemon into wedges and add these to the pan.
Add 3 grilled peppers, preferably yellow, orange and red, cut up. (In Italy we can buy fresh, ready-grilled peppers in supermarkets but you could use well-drained grilled peppers in oil or, of course, grill them yourself.)
Sprinkle over some coarse seasalt, black pepper, a little sumac and some fresh lemon thyme leaves and drizzle over a little more olive oil.
Cook for 30 mins.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix 2 tablesp Chinese plum sauce,  juice of 1 lemon, 1 teasp sumac and half teasp za'atar.

Check the chicken and if necessary give it 10 mins more in the oven. When you take it out, pour the sauce over it and serve.  Garnish with more lemon thyme leaves if you wish.

Sunday, July 02, 2017


Time for a little fun with the number three song in the Italian charts (not the Volare you may be thinking of!)

Fabio Rovazzi e Gianni Morandi - Volare

Thursday, June 29, 2017


For those of you who have been following the short story A Bench for Vecchietta on the Tales from Centochiese blog, the last two installments are up on the blog:

Part 5

Part 6

I'm told that another story is coming soon!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Casa natale di Luigi Pirandello

As a French and Italian undergraduate back in the late sixties and early seventies, one of the authors whose work was to have a lasting effect on me was Luigi Pirandello, born 150 years ago today. Although or perhaps because his works were complex and posed questions rather than answering them, they immediately appealed to me. A recurring theme in the works of Pirandello is the nature of truth, probably most famously explored, for British and American audiences, in the play Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) but my favourite has always been Enrico IV (Henry IV). The title refers to Henry IV of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor and the plot centres around an actor who believes himself to be Henry in “real” life – or does he?

It is always difficult to justify a liking for authors whose political views you abhor and Pirandello, although declaring himself apolitical,  initially supported fascism.  However,  in 1927 he tore up his party membership card in front of fascist leaders and was thereafter watched closely by the régime’s police.

I knew that Pirandello had been born in the Agrigento or Girgenti countryside, but I never thought I would visit his birthplace or dreamt that Agrigento would become one of my favourite cities.

No one, then, was more surprised than me when, on a hot October day during my first visit to Sicily in 1992, I found myself standing outside the 
Casa Natale di Luigi Pirandello (Pirandello Birthplace) at 12.55 pm., five minutes before it was due to close. I had left Modica at 5 am in order to catch a bus to Gela, where I had despaired of the connecting bus to Agrigento ever arriving, let alone leaving. Once I arrived (late) in Agrigento, it had taken the rest of the morning to find the stop for the local bus that would take me, via a circuitous route on which it seemed to call in on every housing estate in the city's suburbs, to Luigi. I explained what had happened to the custodian and she kindly let me in and went out of her way to explain the exhibits. Then I walked down to the author’s grave under a pine tree, from which you can see the sea and, on a clear day, the coast of Africa.  Pirandello had written,

Take my urn to Sicily and place it under a stone in the Girgenti (Agrigento) countryside, where I was born." 

I, less eloquently, said, 

Luigi, I’ve come to see you. It’s taken me a long time and you weren’t always easy to study, nor were you easy to find today. But you taught me to look at life from many different angles and, although at times I've cursed you for it, today I'm here to thank you."

A page from my postcard album

Luigi Pirandello:  Agrigento, 28 June 1867 - Rome, 10 December 1936

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


The weekend again saw the festival of the Sacred Heart or Sacro Cuore and, although I wouldn't describe myself as a religious person, there is something that I find very uplifting and restful about watching groups of people gathering together to celebrate their religion in a joyful, peaceful  way without causing any harm or disurbance to anyone.  It may be a small festival and it may not be very sophisticated but it is, quite simply, "good" in the Christian sense of the word.

I was invited to watch the procession from a friend's balcony and we had a great time chatting out there, intermittently watching the proceedings, listening to the music coming from the church courtyard, exclaiming at the fireworks and finally, eating.

For yes, there has to be food and this year the programme proudly announced the Sagra (food festival) of ricotta-filled ravioli in sauce - not any old sauce, you understand, but a rich tomato sauce that is lovingly cooked for a long time with 'strattu and pork.  The cook serving the trays of ravioli told my friend's husband that she had earlier made no less than 1,000 ravioli by hand! Well, faced with that information, I'm sure you would agree that it would have been churlish to leave any of the tempting offerings on the individual trays on which they were served. Everyone who bought a tray got ricotta ravioli with not just sauce, but a generous portion of the pork used to flavour it, a sausage, bread and cheese and some sweet ravioli to finish.  Of course, it wouldn't have been an Italian summer festival without ice cream and I had made and taken along some of  that old stand-by of mine which I call "chocolate thingies".

Keep gathering in peace, cari modicani, and I hope the "ravioli lady", once she has recovered from Sunday, gets to make many more!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

SUMMER TIDES, 2017 - 2

Yesterday the UN and people around the world marked World Refugee Day. It followed a weekend during which 2,500 desperate souls were saved in the Mediterranean and fell the day after 1,096 of those rescued had been brought to Palermo and 495 to Pozzallo. These numbers are in no way unusual these days.

Among the migrants who disembarked at Palermo on Monday were the only four survivors of a dinghy which left Libya for Italy last Thursday with 126 - 130 people on board. Before long a group of people traffickers approached the dinghy and took the engine. Sudden movement among the migrants in the dinghy probably caused it to sink and the survivors were found clinging to the wreckage by Libyan fishermen, who deposited them on yet another migrant boat in the area. They were then rescued, for the second time, by the Italian Coast Guard.  The four survivors said that many women and children were among those who drowned.

Speaking on World Refugee Day, President Mattarella called for cooperation in finding long-term, rather than emergency, solutions to what he called a human tragedy to which Italy cannot be indifferent because migrant arrivals in the country are a daily, not an occasional, occurence.  He said that this would involve a commitment to preventing conflict in the regions most at risk, combatting climate change (which leads to "environmental migration") and making choices regarding the causes of conflict.  He emphasised that such action must involve the whole international community as the effects of migration are being experienced not only in the countries most involved but worldwide and because migration flows need to be managed on a global level.

UNHCR estimates that 2,000 lives have been lost on the Mediterranean migrant route since the beginning of this year. Of the 77,000 who have attempted this dangerous journey in 2017, 60,000 have reached Italy.

"This is not about sharing a burden. It is about sharing a global responsibility, based not only the broad idea of our common humanity but also on the very specific obligations of international law. The root problems are war and hatred, not people who flee; refugees are among the first victims of terrorism." 

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

Thursday, June 15, 2017


And here comes Bertie-Pierrine with her summer haircut! It makes you feel waggy when you're cooler.

Sunday, June 11, 2017


Today, it is being reported that 2,500 people have been rescued in operations coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard in the Mediterranean and the weekend still has five hours to go.  UNHCR has expressed its deepest concern at the latest deaths on this migrant route, as should we all.  The organisation also reiterates, as has the Italian government many times, that "solutions cannot just be be in Italy."  IOM reports that from the beginning of this year to 7th June, there were 61,234 migrant arrivals in Italy.

Now, no one can be more aware than a Brit this week that the world's leaders have other things on their minds but their willingness to ignore the migration situation in the Mediterranean and let the Italians and NGOs get on with the rescue and recovery operations is nothing short of disgraceful. Where, I ask again, is our common humanity?

As if this were not bad enough, now a row has broken out in which the Libyan Coast Guard has accused NGOs who help in the rescues of being in contact with people traffickers on migrant boats and waiting for the boats in Libyan waters. Yesterday they ordered them out. This is not the first time that such an accusation has been made as the matter has been brought into question within Italy and an inquiry is in process. MSF says it carried out the rescues this weekend in the normal way with guidance from the Italians and MOAS says it has never received calls from people traffickers. Not being a journalist and therefore not having all the necessary sources at my fingertips, I will make only two comments on a matter which is sub judice in Italy: Today I have read, for the first time, articles referring to the migration "industry" and the change of terminology may be indicative. However, someone has to save the migrants' lives and that is what the NGOs, under Italian Coast Guard coordination, have been doing this weekend.

Four of these ships yesterday saved 1,129 people and recovered three bodies. Eight people were confirmed to have died in a deflated dinghy off the Libyan port of Garabulli but at least 52 have disappeared.

A total of 716 migrants are being brought to Palermo along with one body. Of the survivors, 53 are children and 31 of these are reported to be four to five years old. 

This is only the beginning of the summer season so the attempts to sail in more clement weather are not going to end any time soon. MSF has again called for safe corridors for migrants.  The UNHCR article says that 1,770 people are believed to have died trying to reach Italy on the Mediterranean route this year and many of these will have died long before they saw the sea, in the Sahara desert. Others will presumably have died in what amount to slave camps in Libya and today, as a Save the Chidren ship brought 219 migrants, of whom 25 were unaccompanied minors, to Trapani, delegates from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (already in the area) were at the quayside.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Sorry about the lack of posting this week, everyone - I've been somewhat distracted by events in my home country, as you may imagine. 

This morning I decided it was time to head for Catania for a change of scene and some ingredients I can't find in Modica. (I don't know why bay leaves have disappeared at the moment - they are like gold dust!)  Here is my catenese summer breakfast and my "haul" from Cristaldi:

Well, night is falling and I'm feeling sentimental, so here is a song for everyone who's ever lain awake missing someone:

Arisa - La notte


Some of you may like to know that part 4 of the short story A Bench for Vecchietta is up on the Tales from Centochiese blog. Part 5 is coming on Wednesday.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


What else, tonight?

Stay safe, wherever you are.

Ariana Grande with Parrs Wood High School Choir - My Everything  #OneLoveManchester

Friday, June 02, 2017


Back in 2009, in part 1 of two articles on books about Sicily for Italy Magazine, I explained how Il Gattopardo had inspired me as a teeneager and was perhaps even instrumental in eventually bringing me to Sicily. I've reread the book many times since then and I can't tell you how often I've watched Visconti's iconic film of the same title.

Il Gattopardo [The Leopard] by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was published posthumously in 1958 and now it is to be turned into a television series. The rights have been acquired by the Italian company Indiana Productions who will work with the book's original publishers, Feltrinelli, and have the support of Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's adopted son and heir to his intellectual property.

The series will be internationally produced and will be filmed in locations mentioned in the book. Marco Cohen of Indiana Productions has said it will definitely not be a remake of the Visconti film, as that would be impossible but it will be authentic.

The production team are exploring the possibilities for an English language adaptation and the cast - top secret for the moment - will probably be international.

Carlo Feltrinelli said,

"Il Gattopardo not only put our publishing house on the map but also played an important part in the history of literature.  Today it allows us to relive a crucial moment for our identity as Italians and as Europeans. We are very happy about this new production which, nearly 60 years after the publication of the book, will help us discover the significance for our time of  Tomasi di Lampedusa's masterpiece and introduce it to a new generation."

Shooting is expected to start in Sicily in 2019.


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