SIRACUSA, Italy — It's one thing to visit a Greek temple. It's another to wonder whether one of your ancestors had a hand in raising that spectacular monument of well-proportioned stone. Fanciful though it is, that's the thought that has often flashed through my mind during my trips over the past 24 years to Sicily, homeland to all my forebears.
If pressed to locate Sicily, most people will say it's Italian, and many will know it's the island off the toe of Italy's "boot." Few people know that before Sicily was Italian, it was Greek (and a few other cultures in between).
Ask a Sicilian about this, and you will learn that the great mathematician Archimedes was born in Siracusa. Ask my father, and you will hear that Dante was enchanted by the polyglot Sicilian language, and that God planted the Garden of Eden here.
My father's relentless boasting of Sicily's undervalued greatness is what inspired my first trip, in 1976. Who wouldn't want to see a land that had been ruled and shaped by every great and some not-so-great civilizations? The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and the Serbs, Goths, Vandals, Saracens, Arabs, Normans, Byzantines, Spanish--they all left their mark on Sicily.
On my first trip, panicky about meeting my father's cousins, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Agrigento and its Valley of the Temples, where four of them stand in a harmonious line on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I had no idea how to invoke the support of the temples' gods, Castor and Pollux (patrons of sailors), mighty Hercules and the moody Hera, but I left feeling fortified.
More than 20 years later, in 1998, I took my parents there. We found the same pink and gold maritime light suffusing shrines where divine auguries transpired 25 centuries before. My father, a softer patriarch at age 78, sat on a ledge in the scant shade of an acacia tree and said his rosary. My mother and I slowly climbed to pay homage to the gods and goddesses of our ancestors. We rested in the long shadow of the 34 fluted columns of the Temple of Concordia.
Afterward, outside the valley strewn with antiquities--remains of tombs, altars, sanctuaries--we tempered the solemnity of the day with food fit for gods or mortals, pesce spada (swordfish).
Last June, my sister Grace joined me for her first trip to Sicily. The fifth and sixth kids in our parents' assembly line, we grew up with the same stories from our dad. But I had something else to show her: the cult of the Great Mother.
Our quest began in Erice (pronounced EH-ree-chay), on the west end of the island. (We had flown into Palermo, Sicily's main city, where we enjoyed an inaugural feast of pasta with fresh sardines and chickpea-flour frittata, before setting off in our rental car.)
Driving up Monte Erice on the serpentine road that ascends steeply from the drab streets of seaside Trapani, we could see what attracted the Elymians, who settled here before the Greeks. As we rose, sweeping views took in Trapani's sickle-shaped coastline and its salt marshes, and the misty humps of the Egadi Islands scattered offshore.
The village of Erice is dominated by the crenelated turrets and tower of Castello di Venere, a crumbling 12th century Saracen and Norman castle built over a temple to Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans). The castle ruins embrace the remains of Roman baths and a dungeon. There's nothing to see of the temple, where a cult of priestesses personified Venus in the flesh--"sacred prostitutes" who assisted mortals hoping to sire divine offspring.
The Mediterranean peoples' worship of the goddess of fertility, be it Astarte (Carthaginian), Aphrodite (Greek) or Venus (Roman), was entrenched in Erice for 1,000 years before Christ. Over the centuries, the church channeled devotion to the goddess into devotion to the Virgin Mary. Yet up to modern times, Erice has been known to celebrate Aphrodite in spring with processional fanfare.
Grace, indulging my penchant for the mystical, stood reverently with me on the grass above the temple site. Then she declared cappuccino time.
Erice is the home of Maria Grammatico, a celebrated baker and master of the craft of painting marzipan (almond dough) to resemble fruit.
Walking toward her shop on Via Vittorio Emanuele, we wound through Erice's narrow cobblestone streets, admiring flower-filled courtyards. The medieval mood holds up well if you don't catch a glimpse of the communications towers that lace the town's skyline.
Sicily's sumptuous food, like its architecture, is textured by its many conquerors, most notably the Arabs. They brought sugar to Europe in the 9th century, as well as a genius for recipes incorporating almonds, pistachios and dried fruit. To me, this has its highest expression in cannoli, the crisp pastry shell filled with creamy ricotta cheese and bits of all of these sweetmeats, as well as chocolate.