Inca Trail Day 4 & Machu Picchu (Peru)

We’d dunnit!! We finally reached the last day (9/4) of our four-day journey and was going to see the revered Machu Picchu…

The night before, our tour guide, Elvis, explained the itinerary for Day 4: we were to go to sleep early after dinner that night with no coca tea, and then we will get our wake up call at 3 am and be ready for breakfast at 330 and hit the trail as soon as possible bc the porters need to catch the 500a train back to the city. I don’t know about our fellow hiking mates, but I was definitely holding my breath as I listened to Elvis, both from nervousness and excitement!

Our dinner that night was wonderful, as always. The chef even carved pretty things out of vegetables that he had brought, including a condor from a cucumber and pretty lily flowers from bell peppers! The best part was dessert, of course, where we had some jello with fruit and a cake! After dinner, the porters gathered around the meal tent and introduced themselves to us. It was so sweet to finally get a chance to meet them, albeit for only one night. Ideally, we would’ve met them the first night, but due to time constraints, we had to wait. Many of our porters weren’t a part of our tour company, Llamapath, but were actually hired from Ollantaytambo, when our guides realized we were short on help. A representative of our group thanked the porters, and we headed off to bed (read: sleeping bags) shortly after.

The next morning was a mad rush to get ready. Not to mention, we were trying to get dressed and ready in the dark, literally two or three feet away from a sheer drop (we camped on a cliff ledge…). Somehow we all managed to get up and ready for breakfast. We anticipated a simple breakfast of carbs, but the chef and his sous chef actually prepared quite a spread, including fritatas!

After brekkers, we head off. The porters stayed behind, scrambling to clean up after us and head to the trains. We bid them farewell, and walked for literally five minutes to the entrance of the last part of the trail. When we arrived, we found that we were the first ones in line, hooray!! With that in mind, I decided to stumble back in the dark with another hiker to use the restrooms… Thank goodness for his amazing flashlight. We ended up waiting in line (aka sitting in the dark, freezing our butts off) for a couple hours, umtil the gate opened up at 530am…

…And then we were off! It was a mad dash to The Sun Gate, with the hope that we would make it to the gate to see the sun rise and shine through the gate to Machu Picchu. Needless to say, I didn’t make it, but of course, Elvis did, as did a couple of other people in our group. The trail to the Sun Gate was not any less intimidating or difficult. We were still walking thru the rainforest, and the early morning dew and the birds and butterflies made me feel like I was in a jungle! …with a lot of tree roots sticking out waiting to trip you, random rocks and mounds of dirt for you to climb over, and and all kinds of bugs swooping into your face. There was one set of steps that was particularly intimidating; it towered over me and┬á literally went straight up. I’d learned to just keep my head down and step up without looking up to see how much I had left… Seeing that you had 4647392 more steps to go was just too depressing, it was easier to just keep pushing up and forward. But we finally made it to the Sun Gate! And Machu Picchu was just a large speck in the distance… We stayed for a bit, catching our breaths and taking some pictures, and then we were off again, more steep steps with no railings:

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After another hour (?) of hiking (why doesn’t the government fix up these rocky trails?!?!), we had finally reached Machu Picchu… And it was such. A. Relief. We made it!!!

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And man, was it crowded! There were tons of people who had taken the train up to the site and other hikers who took different trails than us, and it was so odd to see so many people when we had just spent the last few days with only our fellow hikers and tour guides… I suddenly became self-conscious of how I must have looked to these people who had showered in the last day, didn’t smell bad, and were free of aches and pains and not hobbling around…but I got over that quick–“I just hiked the GD Inca Trail for the last four days and survived!!!”–but I was still looking forward to my next shower ­čśë There were also a lot of alpacas at the site, as you can see. Part of me wonders whether the alpacas were there or if the park directors had alpacas moved there to liven up the park a little…

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We left the park to use the restrooms and eat our snacks, and then we all went back inside for a tour with Elvis and David. Apparently, the Incans did not know about the wheel, so all the rocks used to build Machu Picchu were moved by people. We saw the rock quarry that they had broken stones from; the Incans would do so by pouring water into rock crevices, wait for the water to freeze, and then break the huge stones into smaller pieces with force. They also drilled holes into rocks (and probably used this method of cutting stones, as well) by pouring some water and sand onto the site where they want to drill and then vigorously rubbing a bamboo stick between their hands (the end result is pictured below).

We saw the Inca king’s bedroom (pictured below), and his closet, which was 2x the size of his bedroom because he never wore the same outfit twice in his lifetime (Elvis told us that one Incan king had a cape made completely of bat wings…!). I don’t think this is pictured below, but the Incan builders had left these niches in the walls of the buildings to serve as shelves, as they didn’t use shelves that stuck out of the walls like we do. Also, the reason why these Incan ruins are still intact today is because they employed a “Lego” method of building, where they would carve a niche in the bottom of every rock and a nubbin on the top of every rock that would fit perfectly into the niche so that the blocks would stay tightly together. Elvis claims that there are some walls where not even a knife can get in between two rocks because the rocks are so tightly put together.

And I don’t know if the pictures I included here can help clarify this distinction, but the builders of Machu Picchu distinguished between “sacred” buildings for gods and the king versus housing for servants, civilians, etc. by using different materials (…much like we do today, I suppose!). You will see in some pictures that some terraces, the steps, and some buildings have more “shoddy” handiwork, where stones of different sizes are kind of “jammed” together to form the wall or object. In contrast, some buildings (like the Inca king’s bedroom) have more rectangular blocks of rock that are smoother and more “put together.” The picture of the ruin that’s falling apart is presumed to have been the beginnings of a temple that the Incans were working on before the Spaniards came (note the niches for god statues, the texture of the stones, and the uniformity of the blocks).

 

We spent a few hours exploring the ruins and teasing the llamas, and then took a charter shuttle bus down to Agues Calientes, a town adjacent to Machu Picchu, for lunch. There was a cool-looking statue (below) where they let us off the shuttle. I’m not sure exactly who the guy is, but I presume he is suppose to represent an Incan king. As you can see, he’s flanked by a a condor, a panther, and a snake. This is because the Incans believed that there was three religious realms, the heavens, the earth, and the underworld, which were represented by the condor, the panther, and the snake, who the Incans believed lived among these respective places. These three types of animals were considered sacred by the Incans and thus were not hunted or eaten (at least, you weren’t suppose to). In one picture above (the one just below the temple that’s falling apart), you can see three tiers, thought to represent the three realms or worlds.

Soon we had to say goodbye to David and Elvis and our 11 other hiking buddies, though we vowed to keep in touch. I felt sad–we had just gone thru a lot together!–but I think we were all ready for some privacy too… This was definitely a trip of a lifetime, and I’m so happy that I have a blog to document it all. I hope to write more posts on Machu Picchu, perhaps a reflection and/or a “tips & tricks” entry!…

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Inca Trail Day 3 (Peru)

Our third day on the hike was my favorite because it was an easy (relatively) day…

On Day 3 (September 3), we didn’t have to wake up until 6am, woo!! You probably can guess what happens after breakfast, right? Elvis told us it was going to be a short day today, only hiking before lunch, and then rest in the afternoon and an Inca site before dinner. And the hiking we would have to do would be mostly downhill too.

We saw our first llamas on the hike today! I think we were all way more excited than we should’ve been over llamas, but considering we are all Americans, maybe that’s normal…

We took a snack break at this gorgeous cliff top, where we applauded our porters efforts as they came throught the forests and over the hill. We also got to snap some group photos with those guys.

We walked on for about three hours more, until we reached Phuyupatamarca (about 12,000ft above sea level), which was used for worship and other religious ceremonies. We were lucky in that it wasn’t cloudy that day, so we got to see pretty far.

We also visited these terraces, where the Incans experimented growing different crops on different levels (which varied in temperature depending on the the terrace level).

Then we hiked to the campsite, ate lunch, and napped. Greatest siesta ever… Although it was slightly more warm because we were in the cloud forest/rainforest. But still, to not have to rush and to be able to lie down and sleep in the middle of the day was amazing.

Then, around 430p, we walked maybe 5 minutes over to another ruin near our campsite (Winay Waya), consisting of ruins, terraces, and llamas, all in front of a most gorgeous sunset made all the prettier with the knowledge that we were 75% done with one of the hardest hikes ever. Perf.

Dinner that night was a feast! The chef even carved cool things out of the ingredients, like our cucumber condor! The chef also made this delish cake and Jello pudding to end our trip. Amaze. After dinner, Elvis introduced all of our porters to us (we were suppose to have met them earlier, but it was impossible with all the delays). I must admit, I teared up a little. I was feeling very grateful and appreciative of their help, and I think with all of my pent up anxiety with the hike and the relief of finishing the hard part, I was just happy with tears. We learned all their names and ages (two young guys at 19, and the oldest guy at 48.. Or was he 50-something?). The chef was only 28, but he has been cooking on the trail for 18 years! A few of the men had been working on the trail for 20+ years, which is insane!! Maybe I am a really sentimental person, but I really enjoyed learning their names and brief histories, and I wished we had introduced everyone earlier so we could’ve interacted with them more. They were so nice to us/me. They always greeted me with an enthusiastic “Hola, senorita!” whenever they passed me on the trail, and they always made sure I had everything I needed once I arrived at camp (juice, hand washing water, towels, etc.).

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That night, we went to sleep (Winay Waya, 9000ft) asap after dinner in order to make sure we would be well-rested for our home stretch to Machu Picchu!…

Inca Trail Day 2 (Peru)

Our second day of hiking was the most intense, but also the most rewarding…

The night before, after we had finished Day 1, the tour guide told us that Day 2 would be easier than Day 1. Of course, everyone scoffed at him and told him that was a total lie… But I think he gave us a little bit of hope that an “easy” second day would be possible.

On Day 2, we woke up at 5am, ate breakfast, and hit the trail around 630am. We hiked for at least six hours straight until lunchtime and ten miles total. Dead Woman’s Pass was the highest pass of the day, almost 14000ft above sea level. Holy mackerel, that was tough. It was pure uphill, and steep too. By the time the Lion and I reached DWP, the sun was blazing above us, making the trek all the more difficult. I was barely breathing by the time we reached the top, though miraculously, I didn’t have a headache or feel nauseous; my chest was just extremely tight, and my little heart was beating hard and fast to keep up. The views were equally nice as we were climbing, but the trail was so narrow that between plastering myself to the mountainside to avoid being knocked off by porters running up the trail and trying to maintain my balance and not fall off the cliff from wooziness, I didn’t even bother taking any pictures. From below, DWP was simply a flat part of the mountain. It’s not as impressive from up top… At least, I didn’t think so. Nonetheless, the last of us were extremely relieved to have made it. The hardest part of the day/whole hike was over… Or so we thought. The only comfort that I had was that 1) every step took me closer, and if I could take at least 20 steps at a time before resting, I was already doing phenomenal, and 2) at least I didn’t have to carry all my stuff and more AND run the trail, like the porters were doing. An extra $70 to rent a porter for the hike was worth every penny, and then some. I also developed some undeserved hatred for our tour guide during this part. I remember thinking that I was “going to pummel him with my walking stick when I [got] up there,” because somehow he was responsible for my suffering (of course, he wasn’t, not like he designed the trail or something… Those darn Incans…!).

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Going down from DWP was equally difficult, if not more. The way down was extremely steep as well. I’m so glad the Lion rented a walking stick for me. That $8 was another example of money well spent on this hike. I relied heavily on that piece of plastic with a rubber tip!! The steps were not only steep, they were also not very wide, extremely deep, and completely unpaved, so that I had to watch where I was placing my feet so I didn’t roll my ankle. It was treacherous, to say the least. Falling and hitting any part of your body on those rocks would do more than bruise you. There were definitely times when I had to take it one step at a time instead of skipping down the steps like those crazy porters. Additionally, I didn’t know better at the time and would drop all my body weight onto my foot that was on the bottom step (in other words, falling onto the next step instead of gently stepping down), and within a few hundred steps, I developed a massive headache and knee pain. It’s not really beneficial to develop knee pain when you’re less than halfway done with a 26 mile hike…

Lunch again was fantastic. I had more of an appetite today because I knew the hardest part of the day (and the hike) was over, and I felt competent that I had made DWP in one piece and without any altitude sickness medicine. I was also slightly more social, but not anymore than my headache allowed, unfortunately.

After lunch, we continued hiking down, down, down, with more of those steep, deep, crazy rocky steps. I don’t think I had an expectation for how the trail was going to look or what it would be paved with (if at all), but I was certainly not expecting all those GD rocks. It literally look like they took a bunch of rocks and just scattered them all over the trail in a pool of concrete. I kept thinking it was like a giant vomited a bunch of rocks all over and it became the trail (although we learned that the Inca trail used by the Inca kings was always treacherous and tiring because they believed that you were only able to “connect” with the spiritual world through suffering…).

One Inca ruin we stopped at is called Runcuraccay. Elvis theorizes that the remains of a round building suggests that this place was a prayer spot or a temple. It’s difficult to tell from my pictures that the structure is round; you’d get a better idea if you search the ruin name ­čśë The last picture with the little square ruin was probably a relay messenger’s quarters. Elvis explained that sometimes the kings would need messages relayed between the mountains and Cusco, and so messengers would relay messages within a short amount of time. These served as resting spots where the message would get passed on to the next runner.

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We were a little behind schedule towards the end of Day 2. Or rather, the Lion and I were because I was taking my time, being careful I didn’t injure myself any further, and the Lion being patient and waiting for me. We completely passed up an Incan ruin (Sayacmarca?) and went straight to camp because we didn’t want to be hiking treacherous terrain with the risk of falling over a cliff into the rainforest abyss. My knees were also in a lot of pain, and my legs had turned into jelly right about then. But we pushed on and made it to camp before sunset, woo!

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Dinner was delicious, especially because we had all made it! We camped at Chaquicocha, about 11000ft high. Again, I was extremely relieved we had arrived and was ready to fall into the sleeping bag, but first, an amazing dinner, as usual. I enjoyed this camping site a lot because the bathrooms were right next to our tents; I’m not sure my legs/knees would have made it much further. And as you can probably imagine, jelly legs and sore knee joints make squatting to relieve yourself pretty difficult…

Cefal├╣, Erice, Segesta, and Rome (Sicily/Italy)

Our last few days in Italy were spent in Cefal├╣, Sicily…

We had anticipated staying a little bit closer to Palermo, but it turned out we were about an hour away from the big city. Cefal├╣ is located in northern Sicily, next to the Tyrrhenian Sea. I think we ran into less American tourists, but the city was still crowded with a lot of European tourists!

The first thing we saw in Cefal├╣ was The Cathedral. I didn’t go into the cathedral (the Lion did), but what I’ve read about it is that the cathedral was built around the 1100s in the Norman style, as the Normans came and conquered Sicily in the early 1090s. We noticed that the two towers flanking the front/sides of the church were asymmetrical: one tower had a pyramid on top and merlons (the little “window” between posts on castle walls), modeled after the hats of bishops, and the other tower had a rounder “cone” on top (Wikipedia says it’s “octagonal”) and another type of merlon (Ghibelline). …I don’t really understand all the architectural terms myself, but the point is, this cathedral had two different towers, one to represent the Papal authority and the other to represent the Royal authority.
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The next day, our driver/tour guide drove us over to Segesta, an ancient city that was once occupied by indigenous Sicilians (Elymians?), Romans, and Muslims. According to our guide, the people of this ancient city were a peaceful folk and relied heavily on their sea port for trade and sustenance. Eventually, of course, Segesta was targeted because of their prime location to the port, and Greek forces began to move in to conquer the area. The people of this ancient city knew they couldn’t handle the conflict themselves, so they sought the help of Carthaginians. Carthage came to their aid and destroyed the Greek city who was looking to conquer Segesta, but instead of eliminating Segesta’s enemy, this victory had the opposite effect. Other Greek cities, angered at this outcome, came to the aid of Selinus, and they all fell on Segesta at once, virtually wiping out all inhabitants of the area. What’s left today are remnants of a sort of “marketplace,” a Greek theater, a Muslim mosque indicating that Muslims inhabited the area at one time, and an unfinished Doric temple.
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f Segesta Theater

The 5th century temple is quite an impressive sight, despite it being unfinished. You can see it as you’re driving up to this ancient city and from the ancient city. Located on an adjacent hill from the city ruins, it has six by fourteen stone columns and is raised on a platform with at least three steps. We know that the temple is unfinished because there is no roof, and the columns are still rough and have yet to be “fluted” (the shallow grooves that are commonly found on columns of this style). Additionally, the tabs that were carved into the blocks to make transporting the stones easier have yet to be filed away for the smooth, finished look.
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Our next stop was Erice, where I think we had the best meal during the entire trip. I ordered a pasta dish from Ristorante Donte S. Giuliano, and it was perfect. Pasta is always perfectly al dente in Italy, but something about the pasta, sauce, and cheese really made this dish a home run. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the dish or the restaurant except for this entrance picture, but that is a cliff-top restaurant I won’t forget about anytime soon!
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We walked around Erice without much of an agenda, just enjoying being there and learning about whatever we came across. We eventually made it to the Castle of Venus, a Norman-period castle that was built on top of a temple of Venus. The castle/temple was partially covered with scaffolding and tourists, but the views up there were amazing. I only wish we had a knowledgeable guide to tell us more about this castle as were walking around it…
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On our last day in Cefal├╣, the Lion and I went to walk the main streets and ate lunch at a restaurant who had a dock that extended far out into the sea (well, “far out” relative to the coast and other restaurants). It was pretty nice to be so far away from the hustle and bustle and enjoying delicious Sicilian cuisine!
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The next morning, we boarded an early flight to head over to Rome for the day before flying home to the US. We only had about 12 hours in Rome, so we hit up some tourist destinations without the intent of going in to learn about its history. We walked through the Piazza Navona to see the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelias (one of the Lion’s idols), a replica of the Romulus and Remus statue, the Typewriter (Altare della Patria or Altar of the Fatherland), and the Roman Forum ruins. I won’t try to summarize the history of it all because I don’t think I spent enough time at each of those places, but it was a really neat experience and a trip I’d love to do again so that I can see it all again without a time limit.
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We stopped by this really neat gastropub in Rome, at the recommendation of the Lion’s sister who had studied abroad in Rome earlier in the summer. I only sipped some of the Lion’s beers, but the food was really unique. We had cheese wrapped in pumpkin flowers drizzled with balsamic, a variety of cheeses with honey or hot sauce, caprese salad, bruschetta with eggplant, figs with a slice of cheese and a dot of balsamic, salami-wrapped toast, liver sausage, a sweet sausage (tasted like Chinese sausage, “lap cheung”), more bruschetta with either red peppers, cabbage, or green peppers, and delicious homemade Italian “ginger snap-doodles” (that’s just what I’m calling them because they reminded me of ginger snaps with the texture of snickerdoodles). Uh-maze.
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And that concludes our Italy trip! I would like to do a sort of “reflections” post on our time in Italy, but that might not be until the Lion and I have a breather from travelling/TSA/jetlag/cramped seating/hotel beds/living out of a suitcase…

Taormina, Part I (Sicily)

This was, by far, my most favorite part of the trip and the city I’d visit again.

Our arrival was a little rocky initially because our shuttle driver took us to the wrong hotel at first. When we arrived at the hotel where we DID have a reservation, we discovered it to be a gorgeous hotel, The San Domenico Palace, a 15th (16th?) century monastery-turned-luxury-hotel. And my, was it luxurious. You can see from the pictures itself– there were garden courtyards┬á at every turn (picked some delish kumquats in some of them…), old stone steps, luxurious rugs, statues and antique wood furniture, and seemingly endless hallways lined with doors where monks would retire for solitude or sleep. The pool was gorgeous, as was the outdoor garden, the sea view from our room was amazing to wake up to every morning, the bathroom was uniquely decorated, the breakfast buffet was delish, and service was impeccable. SDP certainly lives up to its 5-star rating, except for the fact that it had poor air conditioning and limited WiFi, two really basic and expected American commodities, but I guess “you win some, you lose some,” right? And despite those two things, this was my favorite hotel by far.

The SDP was a personal mansion owned by a Dominican friar named Damiano Rosso, a descendant of the Altavilla family and prince of Cerami. When he became a friar, he donated all his possessions to the Dominican order and the mansion was converted into a Dominican monastery. A few centuries later, the monastery was apparently returned to Rosso’s heirs, who converted it into a hotel. The chapel part of the monastery-hotel was destroyed in WWII bombings, but the rest of the hotel, including the 50+ cells (hotel rooms) were not. The hotel is high atop a cliff and has a view of Mt Etna (next post).
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Our first day in Taormina, we spent with a tour guide named Marcello, who was fantastic at his job. We learned a lot about Taormina from him, and he didn’t mind our incessant questions (I think what was supposed to be a two-hour tour turned into a 2.5-3h tour!).

One of our first stops was the town square, of course, where we saw the “minotaur” statue atop the fountain. The minotaur is Taormina’s coat-of-arms, but the reason why it’s “minotaur” with quotation marks is because the statue is half horse (/bull), half woman, which has never been shown before in any records of Greek mythology. It is unknown why a female minotaur is depicted here, but what makes this statue and even more unique is that she only has two hind legs, despite her body position of standing on four. Taormina was hit with bombs during WWII and miraculously, the female minotaur atop the fountain survived but lost her two front legs. Her two front legs were left unfixed and missing in memorial of Taorminian lives lost during that bombing.
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We then walked over to see the ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina. I never thought much about these theater/amphitheater ruins when I’d seen them on TV or read about them in history books, but in person, they are quite an impressive sight. The one in Taormina is the second-largest one in Sicily and was originally built by the Greeks (and rebuilt by the Romans when they came), but Marcello was careful to note that this was a theater and not an amphitheater–the Greeks mainly used the semi-circular theater style for operas and plays, building specialty arches behind the audience for improved acoustics. The Romans used amphitheaters for chariot races, gladiator fights, animal fights, and executions, and the Roman amphitheaters are more circular/oval. The theater was well thought out; it has side hallways for actors to enter and rooms for them to get ready in, and it also has an orchestra chamber allowing musicians to contribute emotion to the plays. When the Romans came, they converted this theater meant for plays and operas into a fighting ring, bringing in exotic animals to fight brave (but stupid) people. Marcello explained that they know this because the Romans had dug out a chamber and a drainage trench (underneath and behind the stage, respectively) for disposing for animal carcass/blood/guts, and archaeologists have found animal bones in those areas.
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While walking the streets, I noticed this three-legged, body-less head symbol everywhere. Marcello explained that the trinacria is the symbol of Sicily. Sicily has a lot of Greek and Roman influences because it was under their rule for a long period of time. Sicily has a very complicated history, and what makes it interesting, I think, is that Sicily has been taken over and ruled by numerous countries, and it wasn’t a part of Italy until the early 1860s. In short, the Sicani were the first settlers in Sicily, then the Greek settled north and southeast regions, from Messina to Syracusa, and the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) settled the west, and then the Romans came and conquered and killed (as they are known to do), then Muslims came and took control awhile, then Normans (crusaders of the pope), Bourbons (Spanish), then French (?), then somewhere along the lines, Sicily became part of the Neapolitan, then part of Italy after WWII/Italy Unification.

So, back to its flag: the head in the middle was originally the Greek goddess of wheat (what Sicily is known for), Demeter (Roman: Ceres). Now, the head has snakes surrounding it, more akin to Medusa. It’s unclear why a Medusa is on the flag, but perhaps her appearance and history of turning enemies into stone was used as an intimidation tactic, seeing as how war-prone Sicily is. The three legs represent the triangular shape of Sicily and the three extreme points of the island capes: Cape Pelorus, Cape Passero, and Lilybaeum head (Messina, Siracusa, and Marsala, respectively), the wheat sprouting from Medusa’s head retains some of Demeter’s symbol of the fertility of the land, and the red-yellow color block represents Palermo and Corleone, the two cities who founded the confederation to overthrow the Sicilian Vespers (more here).
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This may be a future post on its own, but one of the reasons why I really like Sicily is because of their mindset and identification as independent of Italy. I knew ahead of time that Sicilians to tend to consider themselves to be Sicilians, not Italians, and the general response of Sicilians when we asked them about this confirmed it. Sicilians all have a island identity, where they first identify themselves as Sicilians, and then Italians (“I am Sicilian in my heart!”). For a reason I am unable to put in words at the moment, I am attracted to that sort of independence (“rebellion”?), and perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to Texas as well! Indeed, being in Sicily is a really different feeling, atmosphere, attitude than being in the boot of Italy.
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My next post (Taormina Part II) will recount our hike on Mt Etna, a winery we visited, the importance of pine cones in Sicily and artichokes in the Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, and why we measure gold in carats!