Discovering Jewish Connections in Sardinia

Cagliari
View on Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia, an island famed for its unearthly beauty.

Sardinia is an island famed for its unearthly beauty. Sardinia is second only to Sicily in its size among the Mediterranean islands. Like Sicily, Sardinia attracted numerous waves of invaders: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Italian city-states of Pisa and Genoa, and the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon—all succeeded one another in dominating the island. The Northern Italians came last, with Garibaldi himself falling in love with the island. He chose to live the last years of his life in Carpera, Sardinia.

Renowned for its great beaches and luxury resorts overflowing with tourists from all over the world, Sardinia tightly guards its ancient secrets, but for the persistent Jewish history pilgrims, these secrets reveal themselves, one story at a time.

browse around this website The beginning of the Sardinian Jewish story

The first facts about the Jews in Sardinia came to us from Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Matityahu. This first-century Roman-Jewish scholar recorded in his study Antiquities that in 19 AD, four thousand Jews were deported to Sardinia from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. Flavius noted with sadness that the emperor “punished so many” for the “crimes of the few.” These “few” were four crooks who persuaded a senator’s wife, a convert to Judaism, to invest large sums of money in a non-existent synagogue, which these liars claimed to represent. The Emperor hoped that the Jews would perish in Sardinia. Instead, the numerous descendants of the exiles built a prosperous life for themselves and became indispensable for the island’s rulers in trade, finance, money-lending, crafts, and medicine. In  the city of Alghero during the Aragonese (Spanish) rule, the Jews were exempt from paying customs duties and were even allowed to display the royal coat of arms on the synagogue as a sign of their importance to the Crown. While the island’s largest Jewish community was in Alghero, thriving communities existed in a number of other Sardinian cities, like Sinai, Nora, and Cagliari, the island’s capital.

As recorded inJewish Encyclopedia, archeologists note that Sardinia is one of the few places in Italy with catacombs containing Jewish inscriptions written in “ebraico-latino” or Hebrew with Latin. Even today, the Sardinian language contains what linguists call “a hint at a Jewish presence,” a few words that might represent an influential Jewish presence. For example, the word caputannifor September is a literal translation of Rosh Hashanah as “head of the year.”

buy prednisone 5 mg Walking through Jewish Cagliari

In Cagliari, our first stop was the Il Castello district of the island’s capital. Named after the medieval hilltop castle, Il Castelo or Su Castedu in Sardinian is one of the most photographed iconic images of Cagliari. Built first by the Pizans and then by the Aragonese, this city within the city with its gothic and baroque palazzi of Italian and Spanish aristocrats was also a home to a prosperous Jewish community. Even today, 500 years after the expulsion and total annihilation of the Sardinian Jewry, the area of Il Castelo called Ghetto degli Ebrei is one of the most attractive places in Sardinia for Jewish history pilgrims. The former Jewish Ghetto is located north of the medieval Torre del’Elefante, built by the Pizans as a defensive structure against the Aragonese. In the late 1400s, all Cagliari Jews were forced to move into this small area located between the streets Via Santa Croce and Via Stretta and to wear special identifying clothes. In the years preceding the infamous Edict of Expulsion, the ominous influence of the “Most Catholic Monarchs,” Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was painfully felt in Cagliari.

Walking though the winding narrow streets of Ghetto degli Ebrei, we found the Church of Santa Croce.  During this trip we learned that in both Sicily and Sardinia, the churches’ names like St. Giovanni (John the Baptist) or Santa Croce (Holy Cross) served often as an indication that they were built on the foundation of a demolished or reconsecrated synagogue. As a 2006 restoration confirmed, Cagliari Santa Croce was indeed built using the main synagogue’s structure. Only the neighborhood’s name “Ghetto degli Ebrei” points at the historical Jewish presence, while the former military barracks built on the foundation of the old Jewish houses display the sign “Centro Comunale d’Arte e Cultura il Ghetto.” But this is an exhibition place now, with no connection to Sardinian Jewish history.

like this Garbage dump on the site of a Jewish cemetery

Rabbi Barbara told me that the Cagliari Jewish community, though not the largest in Sardinia, created an important center of Jewish life in the island’s capital. In the late 1990s, Rabbi Barbara’s friend, a Sardinian engineer named Giacomo Sandri, helped to discover an early medieval Jewish site in Cagliari. The site represented a complex world centered on the synagogue with a mikveh and a garden for a sukkah around it. The entire archaeological site was soon covered up to make way for new construction, and today, a garbage dump covers the ancient Jewish cemetery. Discovered artifacts were sent to the Cagliari Museum. However, when we visited the museum in September 2014, none were on display; instead, the Jewish artifacts were kept in storage for preservation. One artifact that I was interested in was shipped, as the curator on duty explained, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for their show “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” It was the famous Nora Stone, the oldest existing example of the first alphabet, also called Proto-Canaanite or early Hebrew alphabet.

http://no1highstreetedinburgh.co.uk/1347-dte75078-when-to-end-a-christian-dating-relationship.html Little-known connections: the city of Nora and early Hebrews

Our next stop was the city of Nora situated on the south coast of Sardinia. Believed to be the first city founded in this island, Nora dates to the 11th century BC. This ancient city, most of which is said to be underwater, is of high interest to archaeologists. Nora was one of the most important centers of Phoenician expansion in the Mediterranean. Enterprising maritime traders, the Phoenicians were a Semitic people who spoke a language similar to Hebrew and were the first group to colonize both Sicily and Sardinia, attracted by Sardinia’s strategic location near important sea routes linking the Mediterranean with the Near East. The area was also rich with metal deposits, such as copper, iron, lead, and silver. The Phoenicians established their stronghold on the island; archaeological findings in Israel prove they imported silver during biblical times.

For me personally, Nora with its famous Nora Stone is placed forever at the roots of all recorded history and written literature of Western civilization. The Nora Stone, dating to the 9th century BC, was found at Nora in the late 1700s. The stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet. Unlike cuneiform script, one of the earliest known systems of writing that relied on multiple pictorial symbols, the Nora alphabet used less than thirty letters, one for each sound, and was written like Hebrew, from right to left. This Phoenician invention—alphabetic writing—spread across the world they colonized. By the first millennium BC, the people of the Levant, including the Phoenicians and Arameans, or Hebrews, were using a standardized alphabet, which was soon transformed to create other written languages such as Greek, Etruscan, and Latin. The very word “alphabet” comes from “aleph” and “bet,” the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system.

In Nora, not much is left from the Phoenicians. What visitors see today is mostly from the Roman period. The sunken city of Nora, as it is called, seems suspended between the sea and the sky, and walking through its ruins was almost a mythical experience. I could not help but think that, like the Phoenicians, who disappeared from history by being absorbed into much stronger civilizations of the Carthaginians and the Hebrews, the Jews of Sardinia were also pushed into historic oblivion, by forces of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance.

Jewish Sardinia today

Only a few Sardinian Jewish families returned to their ancestral island after the establishment of the unified state of Italy in the 1880s. Tragically, most of their descendants were killed during the Holocaust. Today there are very few Jews living in Sardinia, and there is no formal Jewish community on the island. However, just like in Sicily, an increasing number of people who suspect that they have Jewish roots are rediscovering these roots through the study of Judaism. Giacomo Sandri, an engineer from Cagliari, who assisted in discovering the ancient Jewish site there, wrote a book on Sardinian Jewish history and made an Orthodox-style conversion to Judaism. Since 1992, Rabbi Barbara has been officiating at conversions of the Sardinian Anousim, descendants of those who were forced to give up their Jewish identity over 500 years ago.

Today, Sardinia seeks to demonstrate the island’s resolve to remember its Jewish history and to preserve the evidence of Jewish civilization in Sardinia. On September 22, 2013, a square in Alghero was renamed Plaça de la Juharia(the Square of the Jews), recalling the fact that the square was once the center of the city’s Jewish quarter and the place where the main synagogue was located. This event, which was attended by hundreds of people, opened with the song “Avinu Malkeinu” performed by a local band. Taking part in the inauguration were Alghero’s mayor as well as the Israeli ambassador to Italy, who said: “This is a historic and symbolic gesture.” The mayor then delivered a speech and said that he would like to rectify the injustice caused to the town’s Jews in the past. He concluded by calling on Jews to return to Alghero. “Welcome home,” he said (Israel Jewish Scene, September 30, 2013).

The Anousim: what we learned from the “Children of the Forced Ones” in Sicily and Sardinia

In the contemporary European context of increasing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes sometimes escalating to violence, Sicily and Sardinia present a new and unusually optimistic chapter in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Our own journey in search of Jewish stories on these two islands brought our understanding of both Jewish history and Jewish identity to a new level.

The destruction of synagogues and the burning of “Judaizers” five centuries ago failed to extinguish the Jewish spirit. Rabbi Barbara told numerous stories, some from her own family, of traditions whose meaning was often forgotten but that survived in their homes’ secret cellars and in people’s hearts. Cooking continued to conform to kosher dietary laws. Family burials were done outside the church with bodies rapped in simple shrouds. Special marriage blessings were recited in a “strange language” at home under a crocheted canopy.  Deathbed confessions of Jewish ancestry to the families were common. The Anousim descendants, whose heritage was so cruelly stolen, hidden, and ignored, sustained their history in their flesh and blood. And perhaps it is the call of blood that drives a continuously growing number of B’nei Anousimto search for their historical legacy and reclaim it.

Most Anousim have no records to prove their Jewishness, they just know that this is who they are. Traditional Judaism does not recognize their claim. It took over twenty years for Conservative Judaism to pass a resolution recognizing the Anousim and creating a welcoming space for those who want to return to the Jewish people. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, the first reform Rabbi in Italy, became a leader of the southern Italian B’nei Anousim movement. For over 25 years, Rabbi Barbara has been performing numerous conversions, Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings, and organizing educational events for Jews and non-Jews alike. In Sicily and Sardinia, a Jewish cultural and religious renaissance is on the rise, with events centered on Jewish history taking a prominent place in the intellectual environment of the south of Italy.

While working on my Sicilian-Sardinian study, I came across Steven Spielberg’s speech addressing the audience during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation. “If you are a Jew today,” said the founder of the Shoah Foundation, “you know that we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-Semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crimes — these people want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity … causing Jews to again leave Europe.” (World Jewry Digest, January 2015). It seems, I thought, that southern Italy and especially my beloved Sicily, prove to be different, once again trying to recreate the once and future world of acceptance and multiculturalism. Sheh Elohim Yevarech Othca—may this be blessed.

Selected Sources

Dyson, S. Archeology and History in Sardinia from the Stone Age to Middle Ages: Shepherds, Sailors, and Conquerors. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Sorge, A. Legacy of Violence: History, Society, and the State in Sardinia. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello
Torre del’Elefante in Il Castello district of Cagliari. The former Jewish Ghetto was located north of this medieval tower.
Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Jewish Ghetto
Via Santa Croce, the main street in Cagliari’s Ghetto degli Ebrei (Jewish Ghetto).
Church of Santa Croce, Cagliari
The Church of Santa Croce was built on the site of the destroyed synagogue of Cagliari.
Excavations of Nora Sardinia
View of Nora, the first city in Sardinia built by the Phoenicians in the 11th century BC.
nora stone
The Nora Stone (9th century BC) was found at Nora in the 1700s. The Stone’s incised writing is considered to be the first alphabet.

Read other little known stories of Jewish communities around the world in Irene Shaland’s book “The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories”

 

The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories Released

cover of Irene Shaland book the Dao of Being Jewish and Other StoriesNew book of stories from Irene Shaland is now available in paperback. In The Dao of Being Jewish and Other Stories Irene Shaland presents a collective Jewish narrative from various parts of the globe. She takes the reader on a fascinating journey, both familiar and unknown, from Europe to Asia and Africa, from Vienna to Delhi and Nairobi. The fate of the brilliant Jewish community of Vienna annihilated during the Holocaust shines a disturbing light on the stories of the current rise of Antisemitism in Scandinavia and throughout Europe. Two-millennium old tales of little-known Jewish communities of India and China, who never knew religious persecution, reveal happy chapters in the history of Jewish Diaspora filled with so many tragic events. And striking stories of the uplifting revival of Judaism in Sicily and Sardinia after 500 years of the expulsion of the Jews from these islands give us hope for a more harmonious future. Based on the author’s interviews during her travels to ten countries and three continents, this book is Irene Shaland’s passionate quest to preserve the Jewish heritage, identity, memory, and history.

This book is now available on Amazon

Irene Shaland is an internationally-published art and travel writer, educator, and lecturer. She is the author of two books and numerous magazine articles published in the U.S.A., Canada, Kenya, and U.K. Her lectures on cultural travel are enthusiastically received by audiences in museums, libraries, synagogues, and theaters throughout the country. Irene and her husband, travel photographer Alex reside in Lyndhurst, Ohio.

 

Villa Romana Sicily – Must See for Italy History Buffs

Entrance to Villa Romana
Entrance to Villa Romana del Casale, Roman villa built in the beginning of the 4th century AD and located about 3 km outside the town of Piazza Armerina

Villa Romana del Casale located in Piazza Armerina in Sicilian heartland is not-to-be missed site for all history and art enthusiasts. Covered by layers of mud for 700 years, rediscovered in 1950, and reopened in 2003 after over forty years of reconstruction, the Villa is a treasure trove of the best Roman mosaics in existence today.

It is believed to be built in Sicily in the 4th century AD by Marcus Aurelius Maximianus who was Roman co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (286-305 AD). Even by decadent Roman standards of that time, this Villa was over-the-top sumptuous dwelling with bright glittering mosaics covering an entire floor surface. These mosaics were created in a realistic style, narrative in nature and provide a rare insight into the 3rd century Roman life style. We as visitors are granted a unique opportunity to delight in the kaleidoscope of Roman life celebrated right in front of us: from fashions, massage, and lovemaking, to hunting, sports, and transportation.

Vila Romana Sicily excavation site
At Villa Romana , excavations still going on
mosaic depicts chariot race in Sicily
Mosaic depicting a chariot race
mosaic in Villa Romana Sicily Italy
This mosaic depicting a scene on a ship is a continuation of the “Great Hunt” narrative: wild beasts are hunted, captured, and then, like this antelope, loaded on a ship bound for Rome
Roman girls mosaic in Sicily
The famous Villa Romana Bikini Girls continue their exercises for almost 17 centuries
Chariot race mosaic Sicily Roman times
Many mosaics at Villa Romana are humorous: this one depicts chariot race where chariots are pulled by various birds, like peacocks or geese

 

mosaic of fishing scene in Roman Sicily
Fishing mosaic at Villa Romana is one of many naturalistic-style depictions of various activities specific to Roman Sicily in the 4th century AD

 

Overlooked by visitors, Catania is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque

Duomo cathedral, Catania
The Majestic Duomo of Catania – a World Heritage site

The third largest city of Sicily, a UNESCO-listed Catania lies in close proximity to the majestic mountain Etna. The city was always subject to the brooding moods of that volcano.  In the late 1600s, Mt. Etna struck twice: first drowning Catania and over 12,000 of its inhabitants in boiling lava, and then, in less than 25 years, leveling the city again by a murderous earthquake. Only 2,000 people survived. However, like phoenix out of ashes, Catania, rebuilt by architects from Rome, was reborn as one of the greatest baroque cities of the Mediterranean.

Today, many visitors skip Catania for the sake of Taormina or Siracusa and this is a sad mistake. The city radiates a strange romantic beauty with its broad boulevards and spacious squares, grandiose palazzos, and great cathedrals, still striking in their black and white colors, lava and limestone, crumbling plaster, and cracked marble columns.

Renowned composer Vincenzo Bellini, born and bred in Catania, is buried in the city’s main cathedral, the Duomo. His presence is felt everywhere: monuments, a house-museum, and even in a beloved Sicilian dish-Pasta dela Norma is named after Bellini’s world-famous opera.

Founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, Catania became the most prosperous Sicilian city during the Roman age, and still boasts not one but two Roman amphitheaters: the smaller one, near Piazza St. Francesco d’Assisi, was built, as Romans often did, on top of a Greek theater, but the larger one, the largest in Sicily, was a Roman original, and could accommodate 16,000 spectators.  Now we can admire parts of that great structure near Piazza Stesicoro.  

The majestic 13th-century Ursino Castello, built on the orders of Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, is the only city structure not destroyed by Etna. The castle was designed to be the city’s guardian, situated on the top of a seafront cliff, but the volcano changed the landscape and the Castello is now landlocked. Inside the Castello is the city museum, Museo Civico, but the most interesting feature of the castle is outside: near the front gates, its massive wall displays a menorah laid out in small black lava stones like a mosaic. Perhaps the Jews working on the construction wanted to write their own page in the city’s history.

Catania’s main square with the Duomo in its center is a World Heritage site, and is dazzling in its majestically theatrical beauty. Here is Catania at its best, showcasing its black lava-while limestone baroque grandeur. In front of the Duomo, is Fontana dell’Elephante, a funny black lava elephant that smiles at us while carrying a huge Egyptian obelisk on its back.

If you are willing, Catania, this special city, will unveil its treasures for you.

 

Entrance to Anfiteatro Romano

Two Roman pillars mark the entrance to the remains of Anfiteatro Romano, the largest in Sicily

 

 

Teatro Romano, Catania
Teatro Romano, Roman amphitheater built on top of a Greek theater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Castello Ursino
The early 13th century’s Castello Ursino: the only building not ruined by Etna’s earthquake in the late 1600s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Menorah on Castello Ursino Wall
One can see a menorah inlaid in small lava stones in the Castello’s wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monument to composer Vincenzo Bellini in Catania, Sicily
Monument to Catania’s most famous son: the great composer Vincenzo Bellini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomb of famous composer Bellini in Duomo Cathedral in Catania, Sicily
Bellini’s tomb in Catania’s Duomo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania boulevard
Beautiful pedestrians-only boulevard in the old historic center of Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania Cathedral
Catania’s beautiful cathedrals may remind visitors of Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania baroque building
One of the numerous great palaces: Catania charms visitors with its unique black lava-white limestone baroque buildings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Nicolo church in Catania
Never-completed San Nicolo church, the largest in Sicily and also the strangest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piazza, cathedral, Catania, Sicily
Catania’s picture-perfect piazza and cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baroque cathedral
Theatricality of Catania’s baroque: the cathedrals seem to be dancing on the streets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sculpture of angel
Marble angel in one of Catania’s baroque churches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abbey in Catania
An old abbey in Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catania University
The University of Catania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo, the Baroque centerpiece of the city, entertains tourists with its amusing Elephant fountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elephant statue
Made of black lava, the Elephant smiles at visitors while carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18th century Sicilian palace
The 18th century noble palace-turned 21st century multi-apartment building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the Steps of Tennessee Williams in Sicily: Taormina’s Casa Cuseni

Casa Cuseni Taormina, Sicily
Casa Cuseni Taormina, Sicily
Casa Cuseni welcomes its guests, Taormina, Sicily

I came across the name “Casa Cuseni” while reading about Tennessee Williams and his beloved partner, painter/poet Henry Faulkner, spending many happy months in Taormina while staying in Casa Cuseni. I knew then, without a doubt, that when we are in Sicily, we will follow the steps of Tennessee!

We and our four friends arrived at Casa Cuseni on a beautiful late September afternoon. We were met by the B&B’s smiling owner, an MD and art lover, Francesco Spadaro, and we followed him up the stairs through a terraced garden. At that time of the day, Taormina is lit by magical shades of golden-bluish light coming from above and below, the sky and the sea, and indeed seems to become “la bella Trinacria,” Dante’s name for Sicily. The most beautiful city of Sicily, Taormina, was called by Goethe “a little patch of paradise.”

Mount Etna and Taormina Sicily
The treacherous volcano Etna: view from the rooftop, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Many visitors today, though spell-bounded by Taormina’s almost supernatural beauty, find it hard to believe the great German poet: the city is literally occupied by crowds of tourists; its cathedrals and palaces are taken over by unending weddings. For us, though, it was Casa Cuseni which embodied the best that “paradise” of Taormina has to offer.  Just like Taormina is not your typical Sicilian town, Casa Cuseni is not the B&B one may expect, but a destination by itself, a living museum of arts and letters, “a place where Art has found its Home,” as Francesco Spadaro calls it.

 

Terrace of Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
On the terrace of Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

The villa called Casa Cuseni was designed and built by the leading member of the British Royal Academy of Arts, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson, in 1905. For Kitson, Casa Cuseni became a refuge, a home away from the world of Victorian morals and his Yorkshire family with their judgmental attitudes toward his life style. Since Kinston was an Art Nouveau or rather Arts & Crafts artist in love with Italy and Sicily, the house and gardens he designed present a harmonious mixture of art nouveau, and Liberty and Sicilian styles. Robert Kitson’s teacher and friend, Frank Brangwyn, designed the paneling and furniture and created a mural in the dining room. This beautiful, elegant, and refined mural invokes a poignant feeling of being singled-out and ostracized. Brangwyn figures symbolize homosexual love, threatened and persecuted by society.

 

Studio of Robert Kinston, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
Salvatore takes our group to the studio of Robert Kinston, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Just like gay-friendly Taormina became a refuge for those artists, who like Oscar Wilde were exiled from their home-countries, Casa Cuseni turned into an intellectual oasis for artists whose views or life-styles were not considered moral or conventional: D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Henry Faulkner, Truman Capote, they all met over drinks on the rooftop of the house overlooking the town and the volcano Etna in the background.

When Robert Kitson died in 1948, his niece, Daphne Phelps, came all the way from Great Britain to Sicily to sell the house. But she fell in love with the place, the country, and the people and decided to stay on and have paying guests. She went on to write A House in Sicily, one of the best books about this island.

 

Picasso’ etchings, Kinston’s paintings, signed Tennessee Williams’ books and private letters in Casa Cuseni
The author in the study: Picasso’ etchings and Kinston’s paintings are on the wall; the bookshelves contain signed Tennessee Williams’ books and private letters, Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

This house, as shown by the wonderful manager Salvatore, has become alive for us and turned into one of the main characters of Sicily. In addition to the beautiful furnishings and a mural, the house’s treasures are displayed everywhere: you live in a living and breathing museum surrounded by Picasso, Faulkner, Kinston, plus the countless treasures of Kinston’s personal connections such as Sumerian, Greek, early medieval, and Renaissance priceless pieces.

I was particularly impressed and deeply touched by Salvatore spending an hour of his time to share with us the house’s collection of Tennessee Williams’ writings and private letters.

 

Casa Cusini museum
Salvatore explains to the author the intricacies of an Iranian medieval ceramic plate, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

Though inseparable from Taormina, Casa Cuseni is a world treasure, a must destination for any art and literature lover.

Our heartfelt gratitude goes to  the owner Francesco Spadaro and manager Salvatore who make every guest feel at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casa Cusini museum
Salvatore showcases the house-museum’s treasures collected by Robert Kinston: Tang dynasty (7th cent.) Chinese figurines, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

Dining room paintings in Casa Cuseni

The soul of Casa Cuseni: the dining room furniture and evocative Art Nouveau paneling designed by Frank Brangwyn, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

Frank Brangwyn painting Family
“A Family” by Frank Brangwyn, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily
Taormina, Sicily
The breath-taking beauty of Taormina: view from the rooftop of Greta Garbo’s suite, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting room in Casa Cuseni
In the sitting room: Greta Garbo’s favorite purple couch is on the foreground; priceless medieval carving is above the fireplace, Casa Cuseni, Taormina, Sicily

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See more Casa Cuseny images

 

Best B&B in Palermo

How to find the best B&B in Palermo, Sicily, Italy
Beautiful Piazza San Domenico is only a couple of minutes away from BB22

I selected a B&B in Palermo called BB22 not only because of its high reputation and excellent reviews, but also because I wanted to support those who restore Palermian ancient palaces.  BB22, a hidden gem in the heart of historic Palermo, is comprised of six luxurious rooms inside a 16th-century Palazzo Pantelleria located on a tiny back street in an ancient Vucciria neighborhood.

The rooms that we and our friends occupied were spacious, elegant and comfortable; the location of the B&B could not be better. Patty, the owner, and Emanuela, the manager, both were very personal and extremely helpful with my preliminary planning, and went out of their way to answer in great detail all of my many questions.

I cannot recommend a better place to stay in Palermo!

Contact: info@bb22.it or see their website: www.bb22.it

Sicily: Glorious Sicilian Food! And The Best Place in Palermo to Discover It

Trattoria El Pepita at night
Trattoria El Pepita at night

Sicily is not Italy, even though the island has been administratively part of that country since the 1860s. Likewise, Sicilian food is not Italian, though of course it has been influenced by the mainland cuisine.  Only in Sicily, a paradise for art lovers and foodies alike, one can see and experience a successful harmonization of so many different influences. And I do not mean only mosaics and architecture. Their food is a true masterpiece on its own.  Sicilians never rejected the past but with love and care combined all the trends brought by many invaders over the last three thousand years.

The ancient Greeks introduced grapes, olives, figs, pomegranates, walnuts, and hazelnuts. The Arabs brought in oranges, lemons, apricots, and sweet melons, along with sugar, rice, saffron, raisins, nutmeg, and pine nuts. The Arabs are also credited with inventing dry pasta and ice cream during their relatively short rule of the island one thousand years ago.  If the Normans and Germans brought their fondness for meat, the Spanish introduced products from the New World: peppers, maize, and cocoa.  The island cuisine adopted it all and created their own: anyone who was fortunate to eat true Sicilian food would be running back for more!

food, Italy, Sicily, Palermo, restaurant
. The feast is in full swing. One can see a tray with Palermian street food: panelle, caponata, arancine and potato crocche. Next to it is the plate with involtini di pesca spada (sword fish rolls).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I strongly suggest any first-timer in Palermo to start their culinary explorations at “El Pepita.” This is what we did. Contact Nino the owner in advance and tell him that Irene Shaland, a travel writer, who had the best birthday party at his place – recommended his establishment.

Italy, Sicily, Palermo, food, restaurant
One of my most favorite Sicilian dishes: sarde a beccafico (sardine rolls).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Located near Teatro Massimo, this old family-owned trattoria called “El Pepita” became our gateway into an understanding of the food of Sicily. Loved by actors and the locals who appreciate good old-style cooking, the guests are always met by the smiled host Nino who makes one feel at home right away.

Food, Italian food, Italy, Sicily, Palermo, travel, vacation, restaurant
My birthday cake Palermo fashion – with watermelon

My husband and I, our four friends, and our terrific guide Bianca Del Bello had my birthday dinner at El Pepita. And what a birthday feast it was: a celebration of traditional cuisine turned into a lesson on history and a festival of flavors.

Nino and his wife, a marvelous cook, made our celebration an unforgettable special occasion.

Nino arranged for us to try multiple examples of Palermian street food. Panelle di Ciciri – a fritter made with chickpea flour and parsley and then fried in olive oil; Caponata – a slow-cooked ratatouille-like stew of eggplants, tomato, onions, pine nuts, and spices; Arancine – little balls of saffron rice with tomato and cheese ragout inside, rolled in flour and bitten eggs and deep-fried; fried Potato Crocche with mint and mozzarella – these a just a few examples of our tantalizing appetizer trays.

To introduce us to Sicilian fish appetizers, Nino brought in Involtini di Pesce Spada – little rolls of sword fish stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, bread crumbs, and anchovy filets,  with orange and lemon juices added for flavor, along with eggs and grated pecorino. They were cooked on skewers with bay leaves and onions. Sarde a Beccafico alla Palermitana were next: fresh sardines made into small rolls with pine nuts, raisins, capers, and parsley and then grilled to perfection. Grilled vegetable trays were incredibly favorable as well.

food, italian food, Italy, Sicily, Palermo, travel, vacation, advice
Irene with the El Pepita’s owners: Nino and his wife, a talented cook who created our feast.

Our pasta dishes were also most representative of the region and its history. Pasta con le Sarde: incorporated fresh sardines sautéed in olive oil, deglazed with white wine, and then dressed with golden raisins, almonds, lots of chopped finocchietto or fennel, and juniper, and then pasta was  topped with roasted bread crumbs.  The second pasta was purely vegetarian and called Pasta alla Norma in honor of the great Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini and his famous opera. Since Bellini was from Catania, a city both nourished and ruined over the centuries by the volcano Etna, this pasta symbolizes the volcano: slowly-cooked augergines resemble black lava, while cherry tomatoes stand for fire and white cheese on the top is snow on Etna.  Of course thyme, oregano, and grated pecorino all add to the unforgettable flavor!

The selection of local wines was excellent; at the end, Nino presented us with a wonderful local sparkling wine on the house to mark the celebration.  If you want a great desert, ask Nino to make the same watermelon cake they did for me as a present from Bianca.

All in all, I cannot think of a better place in Sicily to start you on your culinary trip!

El Pepita is located at Via Giacalone, 3, near Teatro Massimo.  Call Nino in advance to ask for a special treat at 39-091-588634.

 

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Discovering Palermo and Sicily with Bianca Del Bello

Sicily, Italy, Palermo
Bianca tells us about the Sicilian story as a multi-cultural theatrical show on a grand stage of history. How appropriate to do this in front of the famous Theatro Masssimo!

I met Bianca Del Bello by pure chance when searching for experts in Palermo Jewish history.  After a few email exchanges, I knew that I met not only a superbly knowledgeable historian but also a friend with a big heart.  Bianca and I designed a Palermo Immersion Experience for our small group: my husband and I, and our four friends.

We met Bianca at the Teatro Massimo, and then, in a matter of about 4.5 hours, we walked the streets and squares of the ancient city. We visited markets, a traditional painted carts maker, Cathedral, Capella Palatina, Steri, or museum of the Inquisition, and the Jewish quarter. We also visited the places connected to The Leopard– the film, the novel, and its author – in short, covering an itinerary that most people do in a week.  But the speed and the long list of attractions do not matter. What does is the depth of our experience we were literally living through during this excursion. What Bianca did was nothing short of brilliant: she took us through three thousand years of Sicilian history, demonstrating, first on the example of the Cathedral and then elsewhere in the city, how the “sicilitude” or a “culture apart” was formed in this most unique of Mediterranean islands.

No understanding of Sicily is complete without Palermo markets
No understanding of Sicily is complete without Palermo markets.

If Sicily (and its capital Palermo) geographically and administratively is indeed a part of Italy, the Sicilians culturally, linguistically, and intellectually, are not Italians.  They created and inhabit their own world where the past – Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, Arabic, Norman, French, Spanish – is never rejected but accepted and truly embraced. Only in Sicily, a paradise for any art lover, one can see and experience a successful harmonization of so many different influences into a perfect work of art. This not only includes the mosaics and architecture, but also the country itself and its people.

As an art historian and a tour guide, I bow to my Palermian friend Bianca, a Guide par Excellence!

To contact Bianca Del Bello for a truly unforgettable experience in Palermo, write to her directly at biancapalermo@simail.it or call her at 338.165.0832

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Italy Sicily Palermo art mosaic
Bianca showed us the best of the Byzantine mosaic art at the Cappella Palatina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily Palermo history Italy
Studying 500-year old graffiti made by prisoners: inside one of the cells in the former medieval Inquisition prison, now museum Steri.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily Palermo Italy travel vacation history
Sharing a delicious Sicilian meal at the old trattoria “El Pepito” at my birthday party, organized by guess who? Of course, Bianca!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily Palermo Italy travel art culture history
Centuries old folk-art Palermo tradition: painted horse carts used for religious festivals and street fairs.

Palermo Italy

Our exploration of Sicily began in Palermo, the main city of the island. Irene’s heroic efforts to prepare me for the trip paid off: I read Lonely Planet’s Sicily cover to cover, but Palermo came to life only when our friend and guide Bianca Del Bello took our small group on a walking tour of Palermo.

The Phoenicians founded this city in the 8th century B.C. Then came the Carthaginians and Greeks, followed by the Romans. The Byzantine Empire claimed Sicily after the fall of Rome and held it for over one thousand years. In the 9th century AD, the Arabs grabbed Sicily for a couple hundred years, but lost it to the Normans. Not to be outdone, the Germans, French, and Spanish all had their chance in Sicily. Following Italy’s unification in 1860, Palermo became the capital of the autonomous region of Sicily.

Changing so many hands over the centuries left profound traces on the island’s population, culture, art, music, food, and architecture, which made Palermo a prime tourist destination, rich with history, culture, art, and food choices. Driving in the city is rather nerve-wracking, but exploring the historical area on foot is a great experience. In addition to several museums and art galleries, opera lovers will find first-rate opera productions at the Teatro Massimo Opera House. Not to be missed is the Cathedral of Monreale, located in the city of Monreale, which is only a short drive south-west from downtown Palermo.

Read Irene’s stories from Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Piazza San Domenico near our B&B called BB22 located on a tiny back street in the ancient Vucciria neighborhood
Piazza San Domenico near our B&B called BB22 located on a tiny back street in the ancient Vucciria neighborhood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teatro Massimo, third largest opera house in Europe
Teatro Massimo, third largest opera house in Europe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picturesque Palermo market
Picturesque Palermo market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palermo Cathedral, architectural textbook of entire Palermo history
Palermo Cathedral, architectural textbook of entire Palermo history

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magnificent mosaic art inside 12th century Capella Palatina
Magnificent mosaic art inside 12th century Capella Palatina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quattro Canty square
Quattro Canty square

 

 

 

Habsburg Gate
Habsburg Gate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See more photos of Sicily.