This Thursday morning I woke up early, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to awaken the rest of our merry band of travelers. I fixed myself a cup of strong coffee, opened the door to the patio, and stepped outside to feel the pre-dawn coolness of the air and listen to the chirps and coos of the neighborhood birds. The sea was calm and the sun had just started to color the eastern horizon when I took this picture.
Mazara del Vallo is a town on the southwest tip of Sicily. It is a vibrant coastal community that is one of the larger cities in Sicily, with pretty areas like the church vista shown above. When we visited yesterday, however, we weren’t in town to sightsee, but to find some touchstones of the family history of the Sicilian CEO (aka Chuck Pisciotta). Like many Americans, the CEO’s roots trace back to Italy and Sicily.
Our Mission to Mazara had four goals: to find the birthplace of the CEO’s father, to find city hall, where the CEO’s grandfather is listed on a roster of the town’s mayors, and to find the burial sites of the CEO’s grandmother and grandfather. We quickly accomplished our first objective. We knew the building where the CEO’s father was born had been sold by the family decades ago and been converted to a restaurant called the Cafe Garibaldi. We found it, and that is the CEO and his lovely wife, the Landscape Artist, in the photo above in front of the former family homestead. Unfortunately, finding city hall was surprisingly elusive, and we spent hours wandering the central area of town, being given conflicting directions by Google Maps and friendly locals and fruitlessly searching for the right building. After repeated failures, we decided to cross City Hall off the list and head to the cemetery.
The Mazara town cemetery is some distance from the town center and in an interesting place in its own right. It’s enormous—not a surprise in a town that has been in existence for hundreds of years—and includes in-ground burial plots, family burial chapels, and vaults set into long walls, like the ones shown above. Many of the vaults include pictures of the deceased whose remains are inside, as shown in the photo above. We were told that the use of photos is common in Sicilian and Italian cemeteries.
Each wall contains hundreds of burial vaults, and there were dozens of rows of walls, as shown in the photos above and below. When we arrived, we had no idea where the vaults for the CEO’s nonno and nonna were located, and trying to find the right vault in the array of thousands of potential locations seemed like a hopeless task.
Fortunately, the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were able to enlist the help of one of the cemetery caretakers and examine ledgers in a storage area, where they found information about the location of Giulio Pisciotta, the CEO’s grandfather. That is the CEO posed next to the vault in the photo below. Regrettably, we could not locate the vault for the CEO’s nonna, because we didn’t have precise information about her date of death. Still, we accomplished two of our four tasks, and any baseball player will tell you that a .500 average is pretty darned good.
But this day of roots celebration was not over. The CEO had mentioned to the driver who picked us up at the airport on our arrival in Sicily that he would be visiting Mazara del Vallo to find these family connections. By fortunate coincidence, the driver’s parents have a house in town, near one of the nice beaches. Amazingly, the driver’s parents, who we had never met, invited our entire party to dinner as their home. When we arrived last night we were treated to a magical and unforgettable evening by the parents and two of their friends. That is the energetic and outgoing friend at the head of the table in the photo below.
The parents and their friends set a long table in the courtyard and plied us with more food, wine, and beer than you can possibly imagine. Although they did not speak much English, their friendliness and warmth spoke louder than words—and the CEO and the Capo dei Capi were there to translate and break the language barrier.
The meal started with pizza, olives, cheese, shrimp, and fabulous fried sardine and rice balls, then moved to couscous—a delicious nod to the Arabic influence on Sicilian culture—with mussels, shrimp, and freshly caught branzino, which the friend proudly displayed in the photo above. You dole out the couscous, which our hosts dished out liberally, ladle on some tasty broth, and then add the fish on top. It was excellent.
And the hits kept coming, and coming. After the couscous, we had some of the famous red shrimp that had been caught that morning in the waters surrounding Mazara del Vallo, which had been grilled and delicately spiced. Then it was on to fresh cherries—to keep the digestive processes going, the friend explained—and finally a huge platter of cannoli, shown in the photo below.
We munched on the cannoli, which were crisp and not too sweet, with cherries at each end. And just when we thought the parade of fantastic food had finally stopped, our hosts brought out a gelato cake made especially for the Sicilian CEO, as shown in the photo below. Our hosts explained that the cool and creamy gelato would further assist our bellies in processing the enormous meal. The gelato cake was, of course, delicious.
Our hosts also brought out a bottle of champagne, which the CEO deftly opened, and we toasted our meal and our new friends. As I drank my glass of champagne I reflected with amazement on the incredible generosity of these fine people, who invited a throng of previously unknown people who could not speak their language to their home, invested the time and money to prepare a magnificent meal with a special personalized gelato cake, and fed us until we were full to bursting. And I emphasize, again, that before last night none of us had ever met our hosts. It was an astonishing, awesome display of open-hearted kindness and magnanimity.
We should have known, however, that our hosts weren’t quite done. They insisted that the CEO board the back of a rickshaw-like bicycle for a ride around the courtyard. As the evening ended we stood in the gloaming, exchanging hugs and kisses and cheek-to-cheek goodbyes with our newfound friends, thanking them for an evening will live all long remember. What an extraordinary night!
Segesta is an architectural park that features one of these best surviving Greek temples in the world and also a fine example of a Greek theater. We visited there yesterday morning on a brilliantly sunny day—the afternoon would have been a bit too warm for comfort.
After entering the park you climb a set of steps to reach the temple structure. Sicily is a mountainous place pretty much everywhere, including Segesta. If you come for a visit, be sure to bring your walking and climbing shoes. In this instance, the climb makes for an impressive introduction to the temple facade.
The temple is magnificent, and miraculously intact. Archeologists believe that it was constructed around 500 B.C. and has survived to the present day because it was never completed and therefore never became a functioning temple, and therefore was not a threat to the successive civilizations with different religious beliefs that conquered this area. There are many clues in the structure itself that support the never-completed theory, including the absence of the characteristic beveled burrows in the columns and the lack of any sign of construction of the central room in the temple, where the image of the god would be displayed.
The temple building backs up on a small gorge, with beautiful cultivated, rolling farmland on the other side, as seen in the picture above. Imagine looking up from your labors in the fields and seeing a Greek temple only a stone’s throw away. I imagine it would make the work a bit easier.
We left the temple grounds and headed to the Greek theatre. You could walk up a dusty path to the theater, but we decided to take a bus that runs up and down the promontory on which the theater is found. This meant participating in a chaotic scrum to get seats on the bus to the theater and the nearby agora. We’re glad we did, though, because the theater is far, far above the temple, as you can see in the photo below. It was a hot, bright day, and the trek up the mountain to the pinnacle would have been very thirsty work.
The agora next to the theater is mostly rubble. Sicilian and Segesta history speak of conquest and competing cultures, as the area was settled and successively conquered by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans, each of which built using materials that prior conquerors had used before. Most of the theater survived, however.
The theater sits at the edge of the mountain top, with the seats facing the surrounding countryside far below and the sea beyond. Our guide explained that the siting was intentional, to provide for cooling sea breezes that also could lift the actors’ voices to the audience. The theater is huge and once had multiple decks and could seat 4,000 people, but the stones of the two highest sections were scavenged by later settlements to provide building materials. I’m just glad that some of it survived.