“I don’t want to be there for Easter that’s for sure,” I told Magellan while planning a trip to Sicily. But after reading about its Easter festivities, we landed in Palermo on Holy Week.
- Processione dei Misteri de Trapani
One of the most sensational religious events in Europe is the Processione dei Misteri (Procession of the Mysteries), especially in the city of Trapani where it continues for 24 hours beginning at 2 pm on Good Friday.
Parading slowly to the ponderous mourn of a marching band are twenty groups of men in black. Representing a particular guild, each group has ten men shouldering a wooden structure (vara) clothed in black with lifelike statues upon it. The statues, handcrafted and adorned with silver and gold and prestigious clothes, are the Misteri, the Sicilian word for craft that also refers to the mystery of Christ. Each Misteri features a scene from the Passions of Christ, like “The Arrest” by the guild of metalworkers and “The Crowning with Thorns” by the bakers’ guild.
The men follow a traditional way of moving, annacata, a peculiar walk that causes the statues to sway as if they’re about to fall over. From the look on the men’s faces, annacata is a suffering task.
The route goes from the city centre winding through to the fishing neighbourhood. Throngs of people gather to watch, arriving from all over Sicily, Italy and the world as church bells clatter in the streets of Trapani. Lamentation and celebration.
2. Processione dei Misteri di Erice
Magellan and I were looking forward to visiting Erice, one of the best-preserved medieval villages in the world and only thirteen kilometres from Trapani. The Procession of the Mysteries of Erice, a mini version of the one in Trapani, starts earlier on Good Friday and lasts only a few hours.
The twisting road up to Erice closes on Good Friday but halfway up there’s a funicular to whisk you up the mountain. Arriving at the funicular’s entrance around 9 am, we were surprised that there was no line-up. Not so happy when we realized the funicular was closed. A cab driver could have bought gold-covered Easter eggs for the amount we paid him to take us to Erice.
Nevermind. Erice, with its exquisite streets leading to panoramic views all the way to Tunisia, was a golden way to spend half of the day. Familial, dogs waiting on the church step, kids running about, Erice’s Procession is more cheerful, more neighbourly, less gloomy, than Tripani’s. Backstage in the Chiesa Madre Cathedral before the procession began, there was serenity in watching women put the finishing touches on the Misteri and artfully arrange fresh flowers on the vara. Plus, Erice is the home of Maria Grammatico, the queen of Sicilian sweets, second only to the island’s king of pastry, Corrado Assenza at Caffè Sicilia a Noto. Pasticceria Maria is renowned for pasta reale, exotic marzipan fruits with poetic names like sospiri (sighs). “Delicious,” we sighed with every mouthful of Genovesi Ericine and pistachio marzipan.
3. Arbëreshë: Easter in Piana Degli Albanesi
I think it was after our GPS directed us to a dead end and Magellan backed down the road that an ear-ringed guy in a van threw up his arms at our abrupt left-hand turn onto SS624. “Prego,” we waved, hoping, given it was Easter Sunday morning, for his forgiveness.
One of the most colourful and joyful Easter spectacles in Sicily happens in this vibrant community, founded in 1488 by Albanians fleeing the Ottoman Turkish invasion of their homeland, fearing they wouldn’t be allowed to practice their Greek Orthodox faith. To this day, Sicilian Albanians have retained their language (Arbëreshë), literature and traditions.
Elaborately costumed, on Easter Sunday young Pianesi (men and women of Piana Degli Albanesi), gather at the town’s entrance handing out hard-boiled eggs, cardinal red and blessed by the clergy, and then parade up the street in traditional Albanian costumes accompanied by children playing the accordion. Mass follows at the crucifixal hour of noon at the Byzantine St. Demetrios Cathedral, one of nine Albanian churches in this town of 6,000 people. The Cathedral’s stunning frescoes were painted by a local man, Pietro Novelli, nicknamed the “Raphael of Sicily” by his contemporaries.
From Magellan’s video, you can feel the jubilance, the welcoming atmosphere. The Pianesi posed proudly for our photos, directed us to a porta pottie and apologized that today there was no cannoli (the town is renowned for having the island’s best because of the quality of its sheep milk ricotta). Our favourite of the three celebrations—you can see that, yes?
We planned to extend the trinity of events we’d seen in Sicily by a fourth on Pasquetta (Easter Monday). That’s when the Benedictine monks at the Monastery of San Martino delle Scale free the birds that have been stranded there over the winter, recite Gregorian chants and display enormous floral arrangements. We drove up Monday morning, surprised by the lack of traffic until the locals told us the EU had withdrawn its funding so the monks withdrew the event. “Here, have some free sausage,” welcomed a local guy tending a small barbecue. With Covid-19 this year, none of these traditional Easter celebrations will come to pass. A mystery as to if, and when, they will be resurrected.