The Humanities Sequence Trip in Sicily, Italy

February 9, 2024
Laura Zhang

This winter break, I had the opportunity to travel to Sicily, Italy with a group of students who all took the Humanities Sequence (HUM Sequence for short) in our freshman year. The HUM Sequence is a one year course that explores around 50 seminal texts from the Western literary canon from as Homer’s Iliad to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The course typically starts off with 60 students, and rotates between 12 total professors from different departments. Upon completion of two semesters of HUM, students have the option to partake in a university-funded trip in two different locations — the choice this year being either Greece or Sicily. I chose Sicily because it was a part of Italy I had never visited before — and because I love Italian food!

After a grueling 24 hours of travel from my hometown of Sydney, Australia, I arrived in Sicily’s capital, Palermo. From there, the group embarked on a trip through time, moving from the ancient to modern. We first headed to the ancient city of Segesta, and saw a Doric temple (a Greek-style temple that has an unembellished and simple design, especially in relation to columns) that was immaculately preserved, likely as it was never actually finished due to war. We then went to the city of Agrigento, where we viewed The Valley of the Temples, home to sites like the monumental Temple of Zeus and a bronze Statue of Icarus.

We continued on our trip by visiting Villa Romana del Casale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site decorated with vibrant and mosaics; a medieval castle carved on the side of a windy rock face called Castello Sperlinga; Villa Palagonia, a beautiful Baroque mansion filled with grotesque and beastly statues. When we arrived back in Palermo, we toured ruinous Norman castles, gold and mosaic-covered Cathedrals with Byzantine, Arab and Classical inspiration, and dressed up for a rendition of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Palermo’s Teatro Massimo. Throughout these nine days, I loved learning about Sicily’s history and how it has become a “melted pot” of different cultures and traditions. 

Not only did we get to see and explore Sicily’s culture, we also got a chance to taste it too. Sicily is known for its cannoli (which consists of a crispy outer shell and a creamy ricotta filling), granita (a refreshing ice dessert), and its arancini (fried rice balls). Whilst we got to try all these dishes, and other sorts of pizzas, and mains, one restaurant experience sticks in my mind. For one of our lunches in Palermo, we were treated to a decadent charcuterie spread of sweet honey, crunchy bread, three types of meat, and five types of soft, sharp, and hard cheese — only as a starter. We then had a plate of pomodoro pasta, a massive rotisserie chicken thigh accompanied with a mound of fries, and tiramisu, to top it all off. This absurd meal experience lasted about two hours — and so did most of our meals on this trip!

Beyond planned activities, we also got some free time to explore by ourselves. I loved sketching Sicily’s unique flora–such as cacti, eucalyptus, orange trees, and more–with my friend, window shopping citrus perfumes and souvenirs, feeling the cool ocean breeze on my face when we went down to a pier in Palermo, and ordering a cappuccino at a crowded cafe.

When it was time to leave, I was genuinely shocked at how quickly time had passed by this trip. Coming back to Princeton, I reflected on how none of this would have happened if I had not mustered up the courage to sign up for a year-long humanities course even before the start of freshman year. None of this would have happened had I let my doubts about my unfamiliarity with the course content and fears of getting bad grades hold me back. For all those thinking of applying to Princeton and even the HUM Sequence, I say: take the risk! Who knows, one day you might end up strolling down the roads of Sicily, breathing in the aroma of street food, and listening to the hustle and bustle of street buskers.