During my recent trip with Overseas Adventure Travel called Sicily: Ancient Landscapes and Timeless Traditions, I came away with many great learning experiences. But three of them which were unexpected were seeing and experiencing such a magnificent volcano, the cultural influence of pomegranates and pinecones, and the story behind the all-pervasive Moorish Heads.
Mt Etna itself was no surprise, since I knew we were staying in Etna itself, about 45 minutes from Catania. What surprised me, however, was how active it was and that we could see smoke coming out of it. I had a similar experience several years ago in Guatemala and all the volcanoes we saw and experienced there while on an OAT trip. And as with the volcanoes in Guatemala, Mt Etna finally erupted. Fortunately, it happened about a week after I had left, but it disrupted travel in Italy for several days.
Etna (as she is referred to locally) is one of tallest active volcanos in the world. Its in a constant state of activity, and the soil looks so fertile it looked like they could grow coffee there. I was not half wrong when I asked this question. Due to all the transformations Sicily is experiencing with climate change, they are starting to grow types of vegetation they never grew before. Some of the climate is currently altering in part from Mediterranean to something akin to a Caribbean climate. We even saw Spring flowers starting to bloom in late November and early December. And we also experienced snow.
When I was on the pre-trip in Puglia, we saw unusual lamps that were in the shape of white orbs with the light coming out of holes. In addition to that, we saw a commonly used cone shaped object that was used as a lamp or just as an art object all by itself. I was told it represented a pomegranate and had religious origins. Brought to Sicily from the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the fruit is believed to have significance in terms of abundance, fertility, and prosperity. They are commonly used today in the Jewish religion during the High Holidays and represent the sweetness and prosperity of a new year. I was content with this understanding of their significance and seeing them all over Southern Italy, until we were in the Sicily portion of the trip.
In Sicily I understood them differently. We were truffle hunting, and I saw that shape again, this time in on the ground in the form of a pinecone. I asked our guide about the pinecone, and he said yes, that is what I have been seeing all along! When I told him my understanding was more one of religious significance, he said well, in Southern Italy you would hear that. But they are really pinecones you see in the form of lamps and other ceramic art objects. As I saw them being sold all over Sicily, I looked at them differently after having seen a pinecone in nature on the ground. They really are a perfect representation. And their meaning is significant as well.
From a biological standpoint, pinecones represent fertility. From ancient Greek times, fertility translates into prosperity. But wait – so does the pomegranate! But in ancient wisdom, there is also a spiritual awakening involved, and today the pinecone in Sicily just means one is being welcomed into a home. But these beautiful ceramic cones, available in all colors and sizes, are really the perfect souvenir from Sicily and southern Italy.
While looking at Sicilian ceramics, either hanging from the balconies of people’s homes, or sold as either art or souvenirs in stores, it was impossible to ignore the beautiful Moorish heads, seen all over the island. They represent a love story much like Romeo and Juliet, taken from the times of the Moors while Arabs lived in Sicily and there was a heavy Northern African influence in Sicily and its art. The story is more gruesome than Romeo and Juliet’s since it was a love triangle that led to murder, and there are many variations on this folk tale. But the beauty of these exquisitely crafted pieces is yet another reason to enjoy the treasures in Sicily. I was lucky enough to come away with two sets of them: one, a gift from my trip leader on my birthday, which is all white and looks like small plants can be placed inside. The other is a set of magnets, painted as they often are, and given to all of us at the end of the trip. The artistry of these painted Moorish heads struck my fancy, and I could not imagine leaving Sicily without a set. Lucky for me, I was given two.
My trip to Sicily was laden with many twists and turns. Originally cancelled because of the terrorist problems in southern Europe in 2015 and 2016, then cancelled twice more because of the pandemic, it finally came to fruition as a safe place to travel in Europe as the world was awakening to a new reality. And what better memories to have brought home with me then a symbol of love, abundance, prosperity, and a Sicilian way to welcome strangers into my home? And along with these small treasures is perhaps the most potent symbol of Mt Etna. Its image will always remain with me as a reminder of towering strength amid the diversity of life and culture that is truly Sicily.