Viking territory

Stockholm, Sweden
September 22
This morning we awoke to somewhat choppy seas, which made it all the better, during a morning lecture, to imagine ourselves aboard a Viking dragon ship, raiding Baltic river towns and pillaging for gold and silver. Anthropologist/historian Olga Stavrakis described the savage history of Sweden, focusing on the Norse—marauding pagans who, from 800-1100 AD, periodically looted their undefended neighbors, particularly the British Isles, which had to pay them tributes in silver and gold to save their hides—48,000 pounds in 1009 alone.
Fierce as the Vikings were, historian David Barnes told us later on in the morning, their helmets did not actually have horns (as do the souvenir versions you find everywhere in Copenhagen). Nor, he explained, were the Vikings merely thugs, but also traders, explorers, seafarers, and farmers. Eventually, tired of attacking and having plundered everything of value anyway, they began to domesticate themselves in the areas they’d been raiding, blending in to the native stock, disappearing from history altogether.
Barnes navigated us through a few channels of Swedish history, from the golden age of Vikings and the Hanseatic League to maniacally warlike Charles XII (who, having taken a bullet in the foot, lost much of his drive against Peter the Great during their long campaigns) to a shift in European power from the Baltic toward the Atlantic in 1492. With Reformation came an end to the salt fish trade in the area (no Catholics to eat fish on Fridays), churches lost their ornamentation in favor of plain Lutheran buildings, and the country became more secular, nationalist, cooperative and communitarian, as it remains. Napolean invaded, and installed the girlfriend he jilted for Josephine, Julie, as Queen of Sweden, and her line continues. Now a prosperous country, neutral throughout the world wars (though profiting from that neutrality), with a history of female equality, Sweden developed the Scandanavian model of capitalism that is influential throughout Europe today, attracting people for its high standard of living and excellent social services in spite of its high rates of taxation.
With all that history under our belts–not to mention a tasty lunch–the seas calmed and we entered the Swedish archipelago. For all its fierce history, the country could not seem more peaceful and lovely. These 25,000 rocky, forested little islands and skerries are filled with little coves where you’d like to stop and do nothing but dream for the afternoon. Tidy red houses with pitched roofs and white trim perch on the sides of the islands with their sailboats ready at the pier. On the boat, many of us came up to the observation deck to watch these islands pass by through a scrim of raindrops on the window.
Fortunately, the rain cleared for the highlight of the day: a Zodiac ride straight into the heart of Stockholm via the Djurgarden Canal, a narrow scenic passage that spills into the busy city harbor with its gorgeous facades and sailboats. In the clean harbor, we saw swans, a grey seal, and blue herons nesting. After crossing under a lovely bridge lined with September’s last red flowers, we were surprised by Hotel Manager (and Swede) Patrick Svardmyr welcoming us to his country with a cocktail. Much more civilized than the Vikings!

In Stockholm, we had a great dinner at a restaurant called Pelikan, a 17th-century, high-ceilinged building, unpretentious with great Swedish food. My friend Casey ordered bacon with onion cream sauce and got just that: a pile of bacon with onion cream sauce. Delicious! I had some chantarelle crepes, and after seeing huge piles of chantarelles in the market, I was glad to taste some.

LOVED Stockholm. We rented bikes the next day, testing out the city bike system. It was not easy: We had to find our way to the central station to get a card to rent the bikes, then find the bikes. Once we did, we found Stockholm to be a fantastic city for bikes, with lots of huge parks and paths along canals. We stopped for lunch in a castle-type building where new moms were having coffee with their strollers, on maternity leave, no doubt. I could spend so much more time in Stockholm, and was so sorry to leave!

Photos by Casey McSpadden

Entering Stockholm by Zodiac
Entering Stockholm by Zodiac
Entering Stockholm
Entering Stockholm
Stockholm Palace Guards
Stockholm Palace Guards

Estonia: Singing Revolution update

Tallinn, Estonia
September 19, 2009

On the way to Estonia, aboard the Explorer, we watched a remarkable documentary called “The Singing Revolution,” about the history and independence of that little country. I suppose I was reading the New York Times around the time of Estonia’s indepdence, 1991, but I had very little idea of what a dramatic, brave, and bloodless revolution Estonia underwent.
The history of the Baltic countries, of course, is dramatic and terrible. Peter the Great loved the place because it was an ice-free port, and visited 11 times. During the chaos of the Russian Revolution, Estonians managed to become independent, only to lose their independence again under the secret clause of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). From then on, they were caught between these two superpowers. They suffered deportation to Siberia and work camps; twenty percent of the population was shot by the Russians or sent to Siberia, 7% fled. When the Germans invaded, they had to join up or be shot; when the Soviets came back, they were punished for having collaborated. When the Soviets “liberated” the Estonians again from the Germans, they sent all the students and intellectuals to Siberia again, and Estonians lived under strict Soviet rule until 1991. They lived double lives, keeping traditions at home and singing folksongs, and pretending to be good Soviets in public, not daring to even confide to neighbors or friends.
The Singing Revolution, and the accompanying book by Priit Vetilind—an Estonian National Geographic writer who is on board—described the daring steps toward independence Estonians took during the opening of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika.
In Estonia, we had a chance to meet some of the people from the film, a couple whose grandparents had been sent to Siberia, and Trivirus Velliste, who was head of the independent party and then Estonia’s Ambassador to the UN after independence. He described the small steps they took under Gorbachev, always pushing the limits of perestroika and glasnost. They started an Estonian heritage society, at first doing seemingly innocuous things like cleaning up old cemeteries and restoring monuments. “We’d take a small step, nothing would happen, and then another step,” he said. Gorbachev was sensitive to US media coverage of violence against the Baltic states, especially after Lithuanian protestors were televised being crushed by tanks. So they kept pushing: The Estonian flag was banned, so they flew three flags with the blue, black, and white colors side by side. When they had to sing Soviet songs at the Singing Festival, and Estonian folksongs they loved were banned, they sang the folksongs anyway. The story is moving and triumphant, about the willingness of people to stand up for their culture despite everything, and the amazing fact that the culture can not only survive, but thrive.

A few key moments in the chronology, from
1986 TO 1994
§ 1986: Non-approved environmental demonstrations concerning the development of
phosphorite mines test the limits of glasnost.
§ August 23, 1987: Political demonstration protesting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pactheld in Tallinn’s Hirve Park.
§ October 1987: An Estonian flag is put up at a demonstration in the War of Independence cemetery in Voru. It is not taken down.
§ December 12, 1987: Founding of the Estonian Heritage Society.
§ January 1988: The Estonian National Independence Party is formed.
§ April 1–2, 1988: Heritage Society demonstration in Tartu where blue, black, and white banners are flown.
§ June 10–17, 1988: Night song protests: a hundred thousand Estonians gather each night for a week to sing protest songs all night.
§ June 1988: Gorbachev replaces hard-line Estonian Communist leader Karl Vaino with childhood friend and relative moderate Vaino Väljas.
§ Summer–Fall 1988: Organized primarily by the Heritage Society and the Independence Party, 860,000 Estonians sign a petition disavowing the legality of the Soviet occupation and declaring themselves citizens of the Republic of Estonia.
§ September 11, 1988: Mass demonstration (“Eestimaa Laul”) organized by the Popular Front. 300,000–400,000 people attend.
§ January 1989: The Estonian Supreme Soviet declares Estonian the national language of Estonia.
§ February 24, 1989: Estonian flag is raised over Pikk Hermann Tower for the first time since Stalin took over Estonia in 1940.
§ August 23, 1989: The Baltic Chain: more than one million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians hold hands across 600 km to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
§ December 24, 1989: In a dramatic political debate in Moscow, Gorbachev is forced to admit that secret clauses in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
§ August 19–21, 1991: Attempted coup d’état in Moscow by Communist Party hardliners.
Gorbachev taken under house arrest. Yeltsin leads opposition to the hardliners.
§ August 20, 1991: A joint vote of the Congress of Estonia and the Estonian Supreme
Soviet (now the Estonian Supreme Council) officially restores the Republic of
§ August 21, 1991: The coup collapses in Moscow.
§ September 17, 1991: Estonia admitted to the United Nations.
§ August 31, 1994: The last Russian troops leave Estonia.

Tillann is a medieval jewel, with steep roofs, a beautiful orthodox Russian church, cobblestone streets, and walls separating the high town, where the nobles lived, from the low town, where there were commoners. In the morning, the huge cruise ships had disgorged their passengers and it was impossible to enjoy the town. In the afternoon and evening, the town came alive, with kids skipping across the plaza, people drinking beer in cafes and wandering around, a goreous little town.
We had a yummy meal at Restoran Nevskij, a Russian place with cushions and a parrot, with red caviar and champagne…

Photos by Casey McSpadden

Lunch in Tallinn
Lunch in Tallinn
Dinner in Tallinn
Dinner in Tallinn

St. Petersburg, Russia and on to the Baltic Sea

St. Petersburg, Russia
Helsinki, Finland
Sept. 14-18 2009

Landing in St. Petersburg after southern Italy was a shock—a huge difference in culture, weather, fashion, faces. I was awed, walking around town the first evening, at how grand everything is. Wide avenues, enormous, sumptuous palaces with elaborate gold trimmings—Catherine the Great did things on a colossal scale. The canals and palaces are reminiscent both of Paris and Venice.
It was drizzly the first night. Men walked around the streets drinking from beer cans or holding roses for their girlfriends. Most of the women hobbled about in stiletto heels and had sluttish, polyester fashion sense. The spike heels are epidemic (according to the St. Petersburg Times, just yesterday a woman here killed a neighbor with her spike heels after he stole her dog to sell it for a half-liter of vodka; Russians drink 28 liters of pure alcohol per capita per year, including babies, compared with 8 liters for Americans age 14 and over.)
The city seems a bit deserted, and for all its cultural treasures, it’s not easy to find a café or restaurant—in stark contrast to Italy. There’s no lively street culture that we saw. The food, of course, is not the point here, though we had some good herring and beets to go with some icy vodka.
I was glad I’d read Robert Massie’s Peter the Great before arriving, because it provides so much historical background for the city, not to mention an astonishing story. I was half-expecting the place to be surrounded by 18th-century walls. My friend Casey also read the book, so we were excited to set out to find the little log house Peter had constructed when he first arrived and decided to build the port city on the swamp, and also the first sailboat he built (people at the time thought it rather unTsarish for him to be building boats like a workman, but he enjoyed that). We also visited the Naval Museum to see the boat Peter found in a storeroom when he was 16 and learned to sail, which is considered the first of Russia’s naval fleet (it was Peter’s insistence on building a navy, among other western measures, that flung Russia into modernity).
Our first full day was spectacular—a sunny September day, warm enough for the Russians to be walking around in shirtsleeves and swimming and basking in the sun near the fortress (i.e. warm enough for the rest of us to wear a light jacket). Some of them were almost smiling. It was a fabulous day to take in the sights—the fanciful Church of the Spilled Blood (where Tsar Alexander I was murdered, and Alex II built the church to honor his memory), the palaces along the embankment, the Russian Museum, and all the nearby tidy parks, which still have beds of crocus and geraniums. We climbed the dome of St. Isaac’s for a fantastic 360-degree view of the city, spread out in all directions. (We didn’t take a boat ride because tomorrow we’re getting on a boat—me for a month—but the ride up the canals looked tempting.)
For some reason, we saw brides everywhere, in frothy dresses, surrounded by friends drinking champagne from the bottle. They were having their photos taken at the fortress or in front of the Church of Spilled Blood. We couldn’t walk 15 minutes without seeing another bride. There are only a couple of palaces where you can get married in St. Petersburg, and you get only about 15 minutes there; there were limos lined up outside with their big white bows. I suppose even 20 years after it’s become possible to have church weddings again, they’re very enthusiastic.
We walked and walked, making big circles from island to island, crossing the canals. The historic center is just small enough to walk around, but just big enough to get very, very tired. It’s surprising to stop and consider how young St. Petersburg is, only 300 years.
The second day was the piece de resistance: the Hermitage and Winter Palace. I was overwhelmed with all the art. It’s terrible to have only one day for such a collection. You can’t begin to take it all in. We were trying to find our way to the Spanish art and found ourselves flying through a room of Rubens (we slowed down). Two rooms of Matisse and another two of Picasso. Pouisson, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Boticelli, El Greco, Caravaggio, Vazquez– so, so much. It was also incredible to visit a museum that is much less touristed than an important museum in any other city—the Louvre, the Prado. I had a few minutes entirely alone with the Michelangelo statue, and an unobstructed view of the Da Vincis. What a luxury and pleasure to be in a room full of Cezannes or Gaugins with only a few other people wandering by. There were tour groups, of course, but the rooms are so vast that it never felt crowded. After three hours, we had seen enough that we had to stop. I hope I have an opportunity to come back to the museum. Astonishing number of treasures.
We met up with the group from our ship, the Lindblad/National Geographic Explorer, and toured Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, everything covered in gold leaf, fountains cascading in well-kept parks. No wonder the peasants revolted. It was interesting to pass by the more normal living areas in town on the way there—huge Soviet-style block buildings with low ceilings, truly grim places to live. Chinese developers were undertaking another huge, modern development, also depressing.
At lunch, we had an opportunity to meet to Mikhail Shvydkol, the former Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, from 2000-2004. He described some of the changes in the press from the Soviet times, when journalists had to be like slalomists, he said, skiing between the red flags. There was a joke he told us under Brezhnev, where an American tells a Russian, “I live in a free country and can say Nixon is a fool.” The Russian replied, “I can come to the Red Square and say that Nixon is a fool, too.”
Shvydkol said that the change from culture being part of the ideology in the Soviet Union to relatively more freedom of the press has been very delicate and complicated, because people’s psychology changes more slowly than political changes. He didn’t elaborate much on the extent of press freedoms or government ownership or control of the media. As in the U.S., the media are suffering a decline, with newspapers and radio ads down 40%. But during times of economic crisis, he says, publishing has grown. “When people don’t have money for a restaurant they go home and read a book.”
After lunch, we boarded the Explorer, and were surprised and delighted at how spacious our cabin was. It’s a beautiful ship, not too big, dwarfed by the Princess monstrosities we’ve passed at sea, but there’s no chance of feeling claustrophobic (I’m writing this from an oservation deck room with big windows and not another soul). The staff is packed with historians, photographers, naturalists, National Geographic writers and fotogs, anthropologists, all sorts of talent. A wonderful collection of people on board, and we’re very excited for the 10-day trip through the Baltics.
Our first stop was Helsinki, Finnland, which felt quite bustling and western compared to St. Petersburg. The ship was mainly near the downtown shopping area. I loved the market near the port, with its big piles of fresh fish, caviar, anchovies, herring…Outside, the produce stands were packed with berries and chantarelles. We had a chance to have more herring and a beer in one of the Art Nouveau cafes downtown, and to speak a little English…then we set sail for Estonia.

Photos by Casey McSpadden

Yet another wedding
Yet another wedding
Hermitage, General Staff Building
Hermitage, General Staff Building
Great Dane
Great Dane
Hotel Angleterre
Hotel Angleterre
Near the Naval Museum
Near the Naval Museum

Favorite restaurants in Italy this trip

Ciao, Italia!

I left Italy this morning and heard my last “arrivaderci.” I was sad to go, not only because I had a wonderful month doing stories there, I was starting to feel at home in Italy, and my Italian improved over the month, but because I have to leave that glorious food behind.
This was not a culinary trip, but you have to eat, and if you are as interested in eating as I am, as the people I know in Italy are, well…it was a culinary trip.
Here a few of my favorite meals on this trip. I was in Puglia (Salento), Sicily (near Palermo and Salemi), Rome, and Orvieto.
In Puglia, I wasn’t concentrating on the food, and have to say I didn’t have anything that amazed me, but I was nevertheless so delighted when I first arrived at an airport hotel in Brindisi to have such a good pizza at La Locanda ti li Spilusi. The atmosphere made me happy, as did the wood-fired pizza.
In Sicily, I was doing a food-related story (see in a few months), but most of the best food I tried was in private homes. My friend Giuliana Schimicci Scaduto made an amazing meal with a group of her friends, cooking pasta with tuna bottarga and serving it in her lovely garden; she is starting cooking classes in Palermo: Her sister, Daniela, is managing a lovely aperitif bar in Palermo I’d heartily recommend, called Parisi7, right near the Via Liberta (carpaccio di polop!)…. I went to a couple of traditional osterias in Palermo, the tiny ones where they cook the pasta to order, nothing fancy: Osteria Paradisa Giuseppe Corona, Via Serradifalco, 23. Another is Osteria con Cucina Lo Bianco, via Emrico America, Palermo. Both were simple with authentic Palermitano ingredients…

The best meal of the trip by far was in Rome at Alfonso Iacarrino’s “Baby” at the Aldrovandi Palace in Villa Borghese. It was an expensive meal, but worth the experience–a lovely terrace, impeccable service, and a rare meal, truly memorable. The best lunch in memory. Iacarrino is the chef, passion, and mastermind behind Don Alfonso 1890 Restaurant  in Sant’Agata, the Amalfi Coast restaurant that RW Apple, Jr. named as one of his top 10 restaurants in the world, before he died—and the only one in Italy. Iacarrino is obsessed with the quality of his ingredients, which he picks daily from his garden and are front and center on the plate. Each incredible dish had only four or five ingredients—everything was simple, showcasing the freshest ingredients of the season. I had a pasta dish with only four ingredients–flour, water, tomatoes, and ricotta, with a sprig of basil–that was the most amazingly intensely-flavored pasta I’ve had, purely from the quality of the ingredients. The dishes were modern, but simple.

As Apple put it: “(…) Alfonso and Livia Iaccarino grow herbs, lemons and peaches, artichokes and eggplants and, of course prize tomatoes, plus the olives for their own tangy, fruity oil, in a sun-kissed garden facing the isle of Capri near their restaurant on the Sorrento peninsula. In their lovely pastel dining room, they serve fresh, understated, unmistakably Italian food in great profusion – ravioli with caciotta, wild marjoram, barely heated chopped tomatoes and basil, or rolls of baby sirloin filled with raisins, pine-nuts, parsley and garlic, atop a ragout of wild endive. The tufa cellar, first excavated by the Etruscans, is stocked with wines from all around the world. (…)”

I’m just going to put the menu here, because I was so overwhelmed by the lunch I could barely take notes:

Ricciola affumicata alla cannella con macedonia di patata viola
ed arancia di Sicilia
Cinnamon smoked Amberjack with potato and Sicilian orange

Il peperone …….
The Pepper…….
(this was a delicate pepper filet, plus a pepper stuffe with anchovies)
Ravioli di caciotta fresca e maggiorana
con pomodorini vesuviani e basilico
Ravioli Stuffed with Fresh ‘Caciotta’ Cheese and Marjoram,
‘Vesuvian’ Cherry Tomatoes Sauce and Basil

Paccheri di Gragnano cacio, pepe e scorfano
Pasta from Gragnano with ‘Cacio’ Cheese, Fresh Pepper, and Scorpion Fish

Dentice in sfoglia di zucchine, schiuma di curcuma e limone confit
Dentex Fish with Zucchini, Lemon Confit and Turmeric Sauce

I also tried:
Calamaro ripieno di provola campana e ricotta
con fagiolini e salsa al nero di seppia
Squid Filled with Provola and Ricotta Cheese Served
with Green Beans and Squid Ink Sauce

and for dessert:
Concerto ai sapori e profumi di limone
A Concert for the Lemon: Fragrance and Flavour (served in a cold lemon skin)

Sinfonia di pesca con salsa ai frutti di bosco*
Peach Symphony with Wild Berries Sauce

Nothing else in Italy compared to that meal.
In Salemi, where I was doing a story, I had two wonderful meals. The first was at La Gummara, where we had a homemade pasta with tuna bottarga and wonderful service, and the other was at Valentino, where the fish was delicately friend and fresh.

We spent one day in Orvieto, and ate at Al San Giovanale, at a lovely terrace overlooking the hills. We had a flan with black truffles, a pasta with fennel and prosciutto, and game hen with potatoes…a beautiful meal from the hills…

Now I’ve left Italy for Russia, where all of a sudden I can’t speak a word and have no idea what to order! Next: St. Petersburg.
photos by Casey McSpadden

Top: pasta with pork and fennel at Al San Giovanele in Orvieto.

San Giovanele

Second: stuffed squid at Baby

Peppers at Baby

Baby Roma

Baby Roma, Don Alfonso Iacarrino

Valentino, Salemi

Lightly fried fresh fish at Valentino

Ravioi with gamberi and bottarga

House-made ravioli with gameri and bottarga at La Gummara

La Gummara, Salemi

Octopus at La Gummara

Palermo market fish

Little fish in the Palermo market, and vegetables.

Palermo Capo Market

Medieval tuna factory in Sicily: mattanza

Sicily: Tonnara di Scopello
Sicily and Sardegna have a long tradition of mattanza, a ritual that takes place every May and June, where they catch the giant tuna that swim past the coasts. Today, because of over-fishing, only a few mattanza remain, off Sicily’s Egadi islands.
The Tonnara di Scopello (tunnary of Scopello), on the west edge of Sicily, is a dramatic setting, with centuries-old buildings on the edge of jutting rocks and a Norman castle. It’s possible to imagine the boats launching into the ocean between the dramatic cliffs. The owners of the tonnara have preserved the nets and boats, though the last mattanza took place in 1984.
One of the owners described the mattanza to us; his family (the famed Florio family of Sicily) has owned the tunnary since the time of Garibaldi. He had participated in several mattanza himself, and described a world that was once closed off from the rest of Sicily, accessible only by boat, that became festive only during the season of the mattanza.
The mattanza, he said, was originally devised by the Arabs, who were in Sicily during the ninth century, before the Normans. (“Mattanza” comes from the Spanish word “matar,” to kill.) There’s some evidence that the technique goes back much further, perhaps originating, in some form, in the Phoenician or Carthaginian eras.
The mattanza involves a vast series of nets lowered into the water, in what they call an “isola,” or island. The tuna enter an opening in the nets and then are directed into successive chambers of nets, gradually restricting the space and raising them to the surface, where they’re finally killed in the last “chamber of death.” The isola was vast—100 meters wide by 30 meters deep. It could take as long as a month for the tuna to work their way to the last chamber. Once one tuna entered, the others followed. Tuna, the fisherman told me, are the “sheep of the ocean,” rather than the chickens of the sea.
When I saw the storage area where the nets are still piled high, I couldn’t imagine the task of untangling all those nets. There were nets stacked 20 meters deep by 8 meters wide. The mattanza was very well organized, with a rais, a leader, who directed the action; it ended in a bloody killing and a feast, where even the poorest families ate well for weeks. Much of the tuna was salted and exported to the U.S. For photos of an actual mattanza, watch Stromboli, the Roberto Rossellini film with Ingrid Bergman, which is otherwise unremarkable, (except for the fact that Rossellini originally was going to cast his lover Anna Magnani, who, when she heard about his affair with Bergman, poured a pot of bucatini with red sauce over his head and went off to make another unremarkable movie on a volcanic island, Vulcano.)
The buefin tuna can be 12-14 feet in length and weigh more than a ton; it’s the largest tuna. A hundred years ago, there were dozens of these tunnare along the Sicilian coasts. Now several of these stone buildings, right against the sea, have been turned into accommodations. The Tonnara di Scopello isn’t a hotel, the owner urged me to say, but a simple room in her house. It was quite simple, with random furniture, mismatched plates, and not a shard of soap. But the view outside the window was spectacular, of craggy rocks, castle remains, and a gorgeous sea. Though the heat of August is over, the storms of September were dramatic to watch, with lightning zig-zagging across the sky. In the morning, with calmer seas, I had a delicious swim.

Tonnara di Scopello

September storm at Scopello



Next blog: my favorite restaurants in Italy this trip…
Photos by Casey McSpadden: Cross River Photography

Gattopardesco: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s villa in Palermo

I am in Palermo, and had a quintessentially Palermo experience today: I went to visit Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi di Lampedusa, who is the adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957), who wrote The Leopard (“Gattopardo”), published posthumously in 1958. The book, one of my favorites, chronicles the struggles of the aristocracy to survive in face of the social changes that came about with Garibaldi and the unification of Italy. Tomasi di Lampedusa himself was from a long line of aristocrats. He adopted Gioacchino because he had none of his own children, and while Gioacchino had a perfectly fine family already (the aristocratic Lanzas) it was common in those days for aristocrats to adopt a son to continue the family line and inheritance. Gioacchino had been part of a group of young intellectuals around Tomasi di Lampedusa, and apparently the favorite.

During his lifetime, Lampedusa had none of the fame he developed after Gattopardo was published. His cousins were diplomats and achieved various successes, but Lampedusa wasn’t as ambitious. He had been captured during WWI, thought Hungarian and a traitor, and presumably tortured and imprisoned; “treated badly,” is how the relatives describe it, saying he was never the same. He married a princess from the Baltics, a tall, fat woman, who became one of Sigmund Freud’s first accolytes in the 1920s. She taught physicians psychotherapy and evidently couldn’t hold a conversation with anyone without analyzing them. She and Lampedusa spent summers apart and traveled together during the winters. “Naturally, they had no children.”

Lampedusa occupied himself in Palermo with a sort of private school where he taught young aristocratics manners and literature. During his lifetime he published a history of English literature as well as one of French literature, but he didn’t write any novels himself. It was ony when one of his cousins won a literary award, and Lampedusa accompanied him to the ceremony, that he went home and decided that if his cousin could win an award, so could he. So he wrote The Leopard. He never lived to see it published.

His palace is just off the ramparts in Palermo, which were bombed in World War II. (His previous residence was also bombed.) All that remained of what was once an enormous palace was Tomasi di Lampedusa’s history library, which was one of several libraries. His wife had died, he had little money, he couldn’t take care of the property. Giaocchino, who gave me a tour after our talk, has since reconstructed the house; the top floor is a palace, full of paintings and 18th-century furniture (but laundry is hung on indoor lines on the way up the stairs to these mostly ceremonial quarters). The bottom floor, where the family lives, is also grand, and gives on to a terrace full of flowers and a pond with turtles. The outside façade is bright yellow that you can see from the port. Giaocchino is an opera expert and director and so a grand piano dominates one room, and a harpsichord, another (I loved playing a few bars of the well-tempered clavier on that thing).

I was interviewing Gioacchino for a story for Afar, which you will have to subscribe to if you want to read it:

The palace had an endless series of high-ceilinged rooms, filled with paintings—portraits of ancestors, forgotten aristocratic women in their finery, Sicilian landscapes, most 18th century. I was most amazed by the libraries, three of them, which were Tomasi di Lampedusa’s own books, floor to ceiling, ranging from huge volumes of Italian dictionaries to literature in French, German, Italian; histories, cookbooks, travelogues. It was disorganized; Gioacchino told me it would cost 3 euros a book to catalogue what is there. Like most of the aristocracy, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s mansion is in disarray–and keeping up appearances to host costly dinners for wealthy groups and societies. Giacchiamo himself only uses the stately top floor, apart from the libraries, for his own anniversary parties and other special events. He is an incredibly learned man, and our conversation ranged from literature to cuisine to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

I visited another villa in Palermo, the last, also, of its sort, owned by the Tasca family, who own the Regaleali line of wines and olive oils; it’s been there since the 18th century. My friend Fabrizia is from that family (she is also the nice of Giaocchino); her mother, Anna Tasca Lanza, has a cooking school at Regaleali and is partly responsible for bringing Sicilian cuisine to the United States in the 1990s. Chefs from all over the world have made Regaleali, in the country outside of Palermo, a stop whenever they come to Sicily; so has the Queen of England. The villa is enormous and musty, with furniture that belongs in a museum, and can be rented, per floor, for $20,000 a week, including the gardens outside, and lake, which has a cantankerous swan and a fake Romantic grotto with stalagmites.

All this is heady stuff for a gal from Littleton, Colorado, but a wonderful view into another world.

At another part of the Sicilian spectrum I met Mary Taylor Simeti, a Harvard-educated daughter of a MOMA director who came here after college to work on a government project of some sort. She fell in love with an Italian and stayed, and now lives outside a small town on a farm and knows everything there is to know about Sicilian cuisine and history (see “Persephone’s Island).

Meantime, today I wandered with Fabrizia around the market in Palermo, where she introduced me to cannoli-makers and the best breads, along with fried chickpeas and stands that had piles of legumes—a real casbah atmosphere.

It’s still warm out in the evening, and the days have taken on the kind of slowness that makes it possible to imagine life among those aristocrats, on the farm, or closing down the markets during mid-day for a nap…