Sempre Sicilia

13 Jul

Apart from some reading and a few half remembered movies Sicily was a tabula rasa to us. We gave ourselves ten days to explore the island by car in a clockwise direction starting and finishing in the North Western capital, Palermo. I won’t bore you with my tales of terror on the roads, I leave that to Stuart and his ‘Englishman’s Guide to Driving in Sicily’ in the next instalment.

We spent our first five nights at the 18th century Etna Lodge, close to the tiny town of Piedimonte Etneo in the shadow of Mt Etna. That’s our Danish hostess (whose partner is a Roman-Sicilian), Ingrid, with Stuart. You could shoot a cannon down Piedimonte high street on Sundays and only hit a palm tree. Local entertainment ran to boys lapping the block on mopeds and motorbikes, a helmetless girl clinging to the back if he got lucky. Our lifeline to the wider world was the spotless pasticceria with free wifi and wicked cakes. We bought picnic lunches in the general store. Its unmarried fiftyish woman shop owner was curious about us. Despite little mutually intelligible language we learnt a good deal about each other during our exchanges. She couldn’t believe we’d been together 35 years and said she’d never marry because in Sicily it all ends in tears and divorce with kids torn between the parents.











Gole de Alcantara and Castiglione de Sicilia: Etna’s melting snows create a rushing, clear blue river, a blissfully refreshing spot in a parched landscape. The casual bar-restaurant above serves the coldest Peroni in Sicily.



Giardini Naxos: The east coast is quite developed but the mostly gravel beaches are clean and family oriented. The Ionian Sea is crystal clear and cold in July. This stretch is less crowded than Taormina a little north.



Siracusa and Ortigia: The ancient town of Siracusa, almost at the south eastern tip of Sicily, is attached by three bridges to the even older island of Ortigia. This was our first glimpse of Greece in Sicily, the Temple of Apollo. Ortigia’s cathedral was recently cleaned and restored to its original magnificence but away from the main thoroughfare much of the island is derelict. Sicilians don’t use litter bins even when they’re available. Rubbish from the markets and lazy people create a common blight. Sundays here are for sun bathing, swimming and messing about in boats if you have one. Even better to tie four together for a party.








Mt Etna via Zaffarana: The 3345 meter triple peaked active volcanic mountain, Etna, dominates the mid-east coast and is permanently wreathed in white clouds of sulphurous gas. As it’s high summer and neither of us want to ruin our holiday with exhaustion or altitude sickness we opt to go early and approach from Refugio Sapienza on the south side. For sixty euro and fifty cents each the highly efficient and fast cable car whisks us to 2500 metres then the 20 seater four wheel drive bus lifts us the next five kilometres over crushed black lava to the 2920 metre truck stop at Torre del Filosofo just above the site of the most recent eruption in 2002-2003. By now the sulphur was attacking our throats and most people were coughing. A trilingual guide escorted our group around the lower active crater and explained Etna’s history and activity. Some people (read Stuart) were disappointed they weren’t able to stare into the red heart of the volcano but it was close enough for me (read terrifying). While we were contemplating the view three mountain bikers who’d started at sea level passed us pedalling toward the summit of the lower crater. One of them made it all the way to the peak without stopping to cheers of ‘Bravo!’ from the pedestrians.

We were surprised at how unprepared many others were. As we walked/slid back down the track to the cable car we passed families pushing toddlers in strollers, women wearing sandals, and one young couple. She, a young Australian woman, was wearing short shorts, fashion sneakers and a big floppy hat blowing off her head. None of them would have made it to the top, or not without a major row. If you visit leave time to explore Zaffarana, possibly the nicest inland town on the eastern side.










Taormina and Castelmola: Taormina is an upmarket seaside resort that climbs all the way up the cliff behind. And behind that again is the perched village of Castelmola clinging precipitously to sandstone cliffs. It’s a nightmare to navigate by car but rewarding once you’re sitting on a bar terrace with a cold beverage and snacks looking across the coast and sea towards mainland Italy.





Savoca: Savoca was just one of a hundred unknown tiny mountain top villages in Sicily until Francis Ford Cuppola chose it to shoot some scenes for ‘Il Padrino/The Godfather’ in 1972. Corleone, his original choice, was made too expensive by the extortionate demands of the local mafia (according to a 2008 article by Fabrizio Fiorenzano). Film buffs make the pilgrimmage to Bar Vitelli, named after the bar owner in the movie, to enjoy granita limone (lemon ice), pose for photos, and see mementos from the film. The bar was created in 1967 by local matriarch Maria D’Arrigo, who reportedly refused payment from Cuppola for the inconvenience. Maria died in August 2009. Her daughter runs the bar now. We marvelled that she has kept prices so low (1.60 euro for two espressos) as all customers seem to be foreigners. We enjoyed a fine lunch at classy La Pineta around the corner, the only diners apart from three tree loppers tucking into massive plates of pasta washed down with litre bottles of water.








Roccalumera: Sicilians love sun bathing cheek by jowel on their rented plastic lounges but here the beach is free, there is the bonus of watching fishing boats being launched, and watermelon is sold off the back of a truck. Don’t you love Stuart’s Pierce Brosnan ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ impersonation?




Lingualossa: We moved to Villa Neri on the Etna road from Lingualossa for a night of five star indulgence at four star prices. Sergio and his team could not have been kinder. This is a place we would love to return to.





Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples: It was a long hot haul to Agrigento in the middle of the south coast. Our Citroen C4 dashboard gauge indicated the outside temperature was 45 degrees Celsius. Central Sicily is desertified except where irrigation feeds olive groves and vineyards. My research on visiting this Greek temple complex said we could visit in the evening when it was floodlit, however we went in mid-afternoon to check and buy entry tickets. Lucky we did as we were assured no evening visits were possible, the complex closes at 7pm. Nothing for it but to slog it out in the heat of the afternoon. ‘Valley of the Temples’ is a misnomer as the major temples, Juno, Concordia, Hercules, Zeus and Castor and Pollux, are located on a single ridge below the city of Agrigento. Truly strange to see these magnificent remains of a long gone civilisation in front of a very modern metropolis. They date from 750BC and are the most impressive examples of Greek temple architecture outside Greece. It took us three hours to walk around all the accessible ruins and we were close to heat stroke when we arrived at our Bed and Breakfast, Villa Diana, near Favara. Dario is used to tired travellers, our huge family room was air conditioned and there was a bottle of cold water in the room fridge. We felt like privileged guests in a Sicilian stately home, which is pretty much what it is. Rich handwoven rugs on white marble floors, a ‘Tara’ staircase, immaculate pink marble bathroom, crisp bed and bath linens and ornate glass chandeliers in all the downstairs rooms. Remarkable. Dario directed us to a traditional Sicilian restaurant with a view of floodlit Juno and Concordia temples. We overate gorgeous antipasto, pasta and Veal Marsala followed by lemon sorbet. At breakfast we sampled Dario’s own goat milk, olive oil and fruits. A visit to his rare breed of cornucopia horned Agrigento goats, his donkeys and sheep completed our stay.












Turkish Steps and Sciacca: On the coast close to Agrigento the pure white chalk cliffs of the ‘Turkish Steps’ are a must see. Carved by wind and waves they are stunning. Our final stop en route to Palermo via the west coast was Sciacca. Once we’d navigated into the centre of this ceramics producing town and found that rare thing, a parking spot, it was a joy to stroll the stone streets and alleys and pop into the Baroque and Romanesque churches. Saint Margaret’s and Saint Carmela were glorious. Sciacca has the largest piazza of any I’ve seen outside of Palermo and one of the best supermarkets. Our almost daily picnics of local cheese, bread, fat green olives, vine ripened, tangy tomatoes, fruit and water never cost more than nine euro no matter where we bought the ingredients.














Palermo: We nearly hugged the elderly gent at the Europe Car rental office in Palermo when we handed back the car keys and he pronounced that the car was in the same condition as when we picked it up. Twenty per cent of returns are not and I’d paid an 1800 euro excess bond (which would have plus 21% tax on top) in case of damage or theft.

We’re staying next to the original carved city gate called Porta Felice, Gate of Happiness, in a hotel of the same name. This is apt as we’re feeling happy and relieved to have achieved our circumnavigation of Sicily. But Palermo has more treats in store. As a city of a million people Palermo is just like any other busy, urbane capital, but this week they’re gearing up for the biggest three-day event of the year, the Festival of Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of the city. We’ll be on our way to Sardinia on Saturday night when her statue is paraded from cathedral to sea on her brightly painted boat, but there are concerts, shows and fireworks going on daily.

The most impressive public buildings we visit are the Pallazzo Real with the golden mozaic Chapel of King Ferdinand and the Royal Apartments (loved the original 1770 male and female period costumes), and Teatro Massimo, home of Sicilian opera, ballet and the symphony orchestra. The theatre is the third largest opera house in Europe but has the largest stage. The last time an elephant trod its stage was for the ‘Aida’ performance in 1967 just before the opera house was closed for 23 years for renovations. We were very lucky to see the entire stage and wings with some of the orchestra preparing for a rehearsal session. My spine tingled when I recognised from a poster, Henrik Nanasi, the conductor scheduled for Sunday night’s Mozart concert, casually chatting to a violinist.

In the street I see more women, and men, carrying and using brightly coloured fans to keep cool than I’ve seen in Andalucia. And I am fascinated by the faces. Centuries of different colonisations and migrations are written on their faces. Palermo has the fairest blondes to complexions as dark as any you will see in south India with everything in between. This is the only place we see professional beggars working the restaurants and then only a couple.


















The Food: With bountiful, healthy, cheap and mostly pesticide free local vegetables, fruit and seafood, we had many delicious meals accompanied with hearty red wines and the occasional white. There is no reason to eat badly or expensively in Sicily. The only jarring note is how over-sweetened cakes and desserts are.










The People: Apart from the taxi driver who took us two blocks from the Palermo ferry port to the car rental office for 15 euro – we must have had ‘Mugs’ writ large on our foreheads – we encountered nothing but good humour and friendliness in Sicily. But we’re not naive. We know there’s still a dark side to Sicily. As tourists we can’t see Mafia activities but the reminders are there. The multitude of failed building projects, the Falcone-Borsellino airport near Palermo, the ‘No Mafia’ sign hand written on the shed next to the motorway coming into Palermo, and the Falcone memorial tree in downtown Palermo, are just some of them.

July 26 this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the suicide of Rita Aria, immortalised in the movie ‘The Sicilian Girl’. Rita’s testimony put 30 Mafia members behind bars. See her wikipedia entry to understand the extent of her bravery and how the Italian judicial system failed her. Rita is just one of very many brave women and men who have given their lives to fight the Mafia. Google ‘The Independent’ and Rita Aria for some background or wikipedia’s extensive entry on Sicilian Mafia activity.

I end this long epistle with special thanks to the kindest Sicilian man we encountered, Dario, and the final photo is a favourite memory, watching the mountain bikers hurtle down Mt Etna.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: