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Passions of a Sicilian Easter
by Stefania Lanza

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Marzipan Paschal Lamb.It may be a bit more "mystical" across the Adriatic in Orthodox Greece, and greeted with more widespread devotion over in Spain, but Easter remains one of Sicily's most important religious holidays. Easter Monday is a national Italian holiday when schools, banks, public offices and most businesses are closed. This year (2015), Easter is celebrated "early" on April 5th.

In Sicily the holiday has a strong culinary facet. Church attendance in Sicily is a fraction of what it was a few generations ago but people still have to eat! For most people, that means seafood on Good Friday, sfincione on Holy Saturday and roast lamb and sausage on Easter. Barbecues in the country are traditional on Pasquetta, Easter Monday.

For the children there are large chocolate easter eggs. A traditional pastry is sugary almond marzipan – similar to "martorana fruit" – shaped as the Paschal Lamb (shown here).

Sicily's Eastern Rite churches offer the curious a glimpse of the Byzantine liturgy known to most Sicilian Christians until the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century. It was the Normans who steered the Sicilian church toward Rome and away from Constantinople, in the process fostering development of the Romance language which evolved into Modern Sicilian; they arrived just a few years after the Great Schism of 1054.

What can you expect if you come to Sicily around Easter? Spring is always a great time to visit. It isn't too hot, and as the "travel season" is just beginning you'll encounter few crowds at historical sites. One of the more interesting events is the Passion Play.

Strictly speaking, this is the enactment of what Catholics know as the Stations of the Cross, but along village streets. It's similar to the Via Dolorosa procession in Jerusalem. Here a little planning is in order, for every town would have you believe that its own procession is the best in Sicily. The processions in Monreale, Sciacca, Taormina and Enna are some of the best known. But for pure drama and atmosphere there's one that stands out from all the others.

Erice is a hilltop town overlooking the coast near Trapani. Founded by Elymians and settled by Phoenicians and Carthaginians - whose Punic walls encircle part of the old town, Erice boasts a medieval cathedral and several castles and towers. Most of its older buildings and streets are constructed of the local grey stone. Some of the oldest streets are closed to traffic. In April the town can be windy and even foggy.

Taormina and Cefalù are equally beautiful but more heavily populated and certainly far more crowded during the warmer months. Erice is a rare - and largely undiscovered - jewel. Its ambience is strikingly similar to that of the town in Molise used in the filming of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.

While you're in Erice, stop by one of the delightful pastry shops for a hearty espresso and a marzipan Paschal Lamb, or sample the cannoli which are tastiest in early Spring when the rich ricotta cream filling is made from sheep's milk during the best grazing season. Segesta's ancient temple is nearby.

The procession begins around three in the afternoon on Good Friday (it's best to confirm the schedule in advance), lasts about an hour, and from year to year usually takes the same route to the cathedral. It's part of a venerable tradition. Two thousand years is a long time even in Sicily.

About the Author: Travel agent Stefania Lanza lives in London, where she works for a company specialised in independent travel and villa rentals in Sicily.

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